Knowledge Creation (the bed metaphor)

September 10, 2009 at 3:29 pm 5 comments

by Alec Patton

words bedspread

Hello, I’m Alec, the intern working on Learning Futures, and this afternoon I’m making my Disciplined Innovation blog debut.*

I’ve been asked to write about the LF meeting at Paul Hamlyn yesterday – but frankly, it’s a bit like what they say about Woodstock: if you didn’t experience it, there’s no way the written word can do it justice. I will say this much, though: I’d prepared a brief about enquiry-based learning (the use of which term did not go uncontested, incidentally), which got me thinking about construction of knowledge, and why it’s valuable, as a learner, to be involved not just in applying knowledge but in constructing**  it – that is to say conducting your own research.

This brings me to the bed metaphor:When I was working in Sheffield, I stayed with my abundantly generous friend Tom Stafford, a research psychologist who has written his own blog post about knowledge construction (specifically,  how facts are made). Tom was doing work on his house while I was staying with him, and one evening, after we finished dinner he asked if I’d help him put a bed together in the guest bedroom. So we went upstairs, and sized up the stack of shaped lumber and plastic bag of assorted screws, and set about working out how everything fit (a friend had taken the bed apart and given it to Tom, so there were no instructions).  We made a few guesses, tested them, and gradually we worked out how to rebuild the bed. Once we tightened all the screws and bolts and put the mattress on, Tom said  “Great – this is where you’ll sleep tonight.”

Suddenly, the bed seemed a lot less sturdy: it was the first bed I’d ever put together – there was no way I trusted it to carry my weight. But I looked at the bed, and realised that it looked just as well-built as any other bed I’d slept in – the only difference was that I’d constructed it, so I’d seen it when it was just a bunch of unconnected bits and pieces.

Then I thought about all the other beds I’d slept peacefully in, never fearing that they might collapse under my weight. And I knew NOTHING about the people who put them together. For all I knew, they might have been incompetent – they might have done deliberately shoddy work to satisfy some grudge – they might have been drunk!

Once I thought all this through, two things happened: on the one hand, I decided I was as secure sleeping in a bed I’d built as I would be in any other bed. On the other hand, I no longer felt quite so secure about lying down in any bed. 

This is what happens (or should happen) to your relationship with “knowledge” and “facts” when you do your own research. First you think “I did this myself, so it isn’t ‘real’ like other peoples’ research.” Then you realise that, if you’ve been rigorous about your methodogy,  what you’ve come up with has at least as much authority as any other work – and after that, “knowledge” never seems quite as solid and reliable again.

I think this is an important experience to have, as a student (creating knowledge, not putting together a bed) – I feel like it’s something everyone should experience, in some form or another, but that might be my own bias. And there’s only so much authentic research that needs to be generated before it becomes something with more producers than readers, like they say contemporary poetry has become.

What do you all think about this?

 

*Not  my debut as a blogger, incidentally – that happened way back in March
**or producing it, or generating it, choose your verb, but for now I’m going to avoid this particular semantic briarpatch, and anyone who wants to discuss the production/construction/generation of knowledge in detail can do so in the comments.

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Entry filed under: Education & Children's Services, Research, Schools & Multi-School Trusts.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Claire McEneaney  |  September 10, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    I LOVE the bed metaphor…

    I think the experience of conducting your own research and evaluating it critically enables you to be much objective about the research done by others. That was certainly my experience from conducting my own research – it enabled me to see the shortcuts that I could’ve taken, the ways I could have manipulated my figures etc. I think it makes you take everything you read after that process with a large pinch of salt, which is no bad thing. We are fed so much ‘definitive’ research that its good to have a healthy dash of cynicism once in a while!

    Reply
  • 2. thirup  |  September 10, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    You have thrown down the gauntlet!!

    I like your metaphor to, maybe we could make a similar one called the lamb-eating girlfriend metaphor. I remember when my girlfriend, who has lived her entire life in London, came to visit my parents house in the danish country side. We had planned to barbecue a whole lamb, home grown, which ment choosing one of my parents lambs from the field, shooting it and then butchering it. Suddenly my girlfriend, who loves lamb, had serious objections to easting the little animal. Ignorance is bliss i guess!!

    With reference to your bed metaphor i find it interesting that you put together a bed. You wanted a bed, you knew you had the parts for a bed, so you put together a bed. What if you had looked at all the pieces and put together a chair?

    Reply
  • 3. alecpatton  |  September 11, 2009 at 8:32 am

    I’ve been thinking about what you said, Peter – my options were limited by the nature of the materials, in a way that they aren’t, with, say, lego.

    I guess you could say my experience of bedmaking was highly scaffolded: Tom and I were carrying out an “authentic” project (putting together a bed, which I needed in order to have a place to sleep), but there was really only one “right” answer – one way to put the bed together properly. This is a good illustration of why scaffolding is important – if I had a stack of wood and some powertools (or maybe a chainsaw and a tree), I DEFINITELY wouldn’t have felt safe sleeping in whatever I built.

    Reply
  • 4. Valerie Hannon  |  September 11, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    Alec, your metaphor is seriously useful, partly – probably mostly – becauseof the questions it throws up.
    I’m in New York City (on the anniversary of 9/11) about to commence a 4-day program with senior systems leaders of 4 jursdictions across the world (New York, Ontario, England and Victoria Australia.)
    A key theme is transforming education systems so that students are engaged in the process of co-constructing their curricula and creating knowledge. These leaders have – to a degree – signed up to this agenda. but how much do we, products of the 20C transmissive, factory style of education, really believe this is possible? Taking the bed metaphor, the participants would, i think suggest that (a) you were only capable of making any construction because of all the previous instruction and guide experience you had had in the past with tool-using and model-making; and (b) you would have made a sturdier, solid construction (about which you would have been completely confident about lying on) if you had had that instruction booklet or someone there to act like one. And you would have learned as much, quicker. But would you?

    I think we have to construct (sorry to maintain the metaphor) finely balance arguments and examples – and probably heaps of metaphors! – of how knowledge creation and co-construction blends with more formal types of pedagogy.
    I’m going to run yours past this crew and see how it plays.
    It certainly made me laugh out loud – thank you!

    Reply
  • 5. thirup  |  September 16, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    First of all – you win!! And now to my question. Reading your blog made me think, what do you think about learning processes where something familiar such as Fraggles or Winnie the Pooh is being used to explain and assist learning about what can sometimes be very abstract philosophical and political theories?

    For some reason i cant hyperlink but find the links here:

    Winnie the Poo: http://www.amazon.co.uk/philosophy-Winnie-the-Pooh-Characters-Series-Books/s?ie=UTF8&keywords=Philosophy&rh=n%3A291630%2Ck%3APhilosophy&page=1

    Fraggles: http://feedingthepuppy.typepad.com/feeding_the_puppy/2008/11/fraggles-and-doozers.html

    Reply

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