Monday, January 29, 2007

Acquiring knowledge is acquiring a skill

I recently described one way that acquiring knoweldge is like learning a langauge. This post describes another.

That earlier post argued that like our language ability, knowledge (particularly that forming the core of our picture of the world) is mainly constructed out of innate types of structures, by unconscious processes that integrate the information received from our environment.

The similarity I want to draw here i that both acquiring knowledge and learning a language are matters of acquring skills. While that last post concentrated mainly on unconsciously obtained knowledge, this post seems to apply more to consciously learnt knowledge.

Aquiring knowledge is, in particular, like an adult acquiring a second language.

Acquiring a language is developing a skill: a skill in using the language. This process has the following properties.

You can't just memorise the details. You have to actually practise hearing and speaking the language.

As you learn more, you're not just learning more details of the language, you're also refining your existing abilities.

And of course, it all takes substantial time and practise.

What you end up with is fluency. Whatever you want to say, in whatever context, you just know how to do it. You don't have to think it through, you can just do it, in real time. Not only can you speak the language, but you can think in it.

All skill acquisition goes through such drawn out processes of refinement, ending in fluency. What I want to suggest is that acquiring knowledge is like this too.

Like with language, acquiring knowledge is really a matter of being able to use the information.

Like with language, it is not something you can just memorise. It's not just a matter of fixing a bunch of facts in you head. You need to see the information being used in different contexts, and try using it yourself.

You need to see the information being related to different things, reasoned about in various ways, and so forth. You need to apply it yourself, in thinking and other problem solving tasks.

Similarly to langauge, as you learn more, you're not just learning more information, but you're refining your existing picture of things. You refine your appreciation of how the bits of information relate to each other, and you refine your ability to make use of the information in your thinking.

Also, you can come to see how the information conflicts with other beliefs you hold (and potentially try and resolve these conflicts).

And like with lanuage, it all takes substantial time and practise.

What you end up with is a kind of fluency, too. In a given situation, you know if the knowledge is relevant or not, and in what ways it may be relevant. And you can just do this, without having to think it through (or without having to think it through as much). And not only can you recall the knowledge, you can think in terms of it.

This is pretty different to the usual view of knowledge. There's a common belief that knowing something is just knowing the fact(s) associated with it, and being able to express them. And that if you know this, then that's all there is to it -- it's just assumed that you understand how it relates to other things, that it is genuinely assimilated into your worldview, that you understand what other beliefs it conflicts with, that you are able to reason effectively with it, and that you in fact do apply the information, that knowledge, when it is appropriate to what you are thinking about.

But all of these things don't come for free, from just knowing the facts. They are developed over time. And its probably quite rare that anyone's knowledge of a particular area gets as fully developed as it can be.

If acquiring knowledge is acquiring a skill, then this explains, I think, why writing about or teaching a topic is a good way to learn it. In other words, if acquiring knowledge was not a skill, then going to such lengths in applying it wouldn't be of that much use.

Why does writing about it help acquire that skill? The drafting process helps you build an understanding of how the information fits together. It helps you to explore the relationships between things. It gives you the necessary practise to build the knowledge.

That process tends to drive you forwards, to fix lackings in your understanding of these things. Wherever your writing contains a lack of coherence or forcefulness, this tends to reflect an lacking in your understanding of it, and working on these problems means improving that understanding.

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