Knowing vs. Doing: Time for More Action?

A June 23 posting in the Only Connect weblog, The End of Knowing, discusses the concept of performativity: “knowledge is better linked to what it can do rather than object truth.”

This has got me thinking about the big picture of e-learning again…

As my career expands from traditional writing, editing, and journalism to include more e-learning projects, I find I have to keep reminding myself about the importance of framing all e-learning content in the context of learning objectives. (I wrote an earlier article about this.)

In order for a learning objective to be useful in an educational or training context, it must focus on something the learner can DO to demonstrate that they’ve probably learned that part of the lesson. In other words, learning objectives phrased in terms such as “The learner will understand that…” are not useful. “Understanding” (“knowing”) cannot be specifically demonstrated because that activity occurs entirely inside your head. You may have learned something; but how could anyone else confirm that?

Based on my experience so far, the confirmation of specific learning via demonstration appears to be more critical to e-learning than to more traditional learning processes.

I’m not sure why this is, but I suspect it has to do with the lack of direct, face-to-face interaction in e-learning. That is, classroom educators get a lot of information about how well students probably are learning from observing the students’ body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. That information often gets processed subconsciously and thus is generally taken for granted, but it’s important. In the absence of such human cues, quizzing and skill demonstration becomes critical.

The Only Connect posting cites a book by Fred Newman and Lois Holzman called The End of Knowing: And the Rediscovery of Development in the Performance of Conversation. I haven’t read this book, but I’m intrigued by this excerpt from its Amazon.com synopsis:

“For centuries, knowledge has been thought to be the key to human progress of all kinds and has dominated Western culture. But what if knowing has now become an impediment to further human development?”

Interesting! Is the author saying that maybe people focused too much on thinking, discussing, and analyzing information and not enough on taking action based on what we learn? I’d like to find out, so I’ve added this book to my wish list.

Here’s the thing about taking action: Whether action succeeds or fails, whether the results are expected or surprising, it generates results. Even “no effect” is an observable result. Results are useful information. Without results all we really have is conjecture.

Personally, I learn best by doing. I know this is also true of many other people, but not all. If I just read something, I’m not likely to grasp its true meaning and value as clearly as if I’m asked to do something with that knowledge – even if that action only involves answering a quiz question. This is one of the main reasons I became a journalist: I’m insatiably curious, and my curiousity is satisfied far more when I pursue information with the goal in mind of producing an article on that topic.

For people like me, who learn best by doing, well-designed e-learning offers surprising potential – surprising because one might not expect that kind of benefit from what is generally considered a more remote, less “human” approach to education.

…Still, not everyone learns best by doing. Each person has his or her own preferred learning style, and all are equally valid as long as they result in learning. Personally, I don’t think we’re at “the end of knowing” – but perhaps we’ve arrived at the end of drastically underestimating the role of “doing” in learning.