January 17, 2019

“It’s not that you white people can’t know certain things, it’s that your taught not to know”

–Omaha Indian as told to author Jim Harrison

What does it mean to “not to know” something? An egregious example of not knowing is when one willfully decides not to know. For example, a student may turn their head every time one of their classmates gets bullied; an employee will ignore the obvious law breaking perpetrated by their boss. In this case a person is consciously making a decision to ignore the environmental cues that are obvious to his/her senses. Another way of “not knowing” is when a person actually is not aware of a fact or situation. For example, in almost anything dealing with quantum physics I simply do not know the material therefore I “do not know”. Because “not knowing” is beyond their life experience or current knowledge, “not knowing” is beyond their consciousness. The interesting aspect of this type of “not knowing” is that a person can go blissfully through life not knowing things outside their life experience. What are the ramifications of this kind of “bliss” in education?

Let’s apply the second type of not knowing to our learning environment. There are many things that educators are “taught not to know”. What would education look like if we tried to view it as if it was the first time we experienced it? I have pondered this a lot and I have decided that for me (at least) it is nearly impossible to “see education for the first time”. I come with so many preconceived notions, based on my experience, that I have mental blocks. I have made some headway in trying to articulate aspects of education that I am taught “not to know” when I think of educational structures. Educational structures are the aspects of the educational experience that we are not even aware affect our education. All of us have learned how to wait in line in school; we have learned to be obedient and wait our turn in class; we assume that grades and grading are a given in a learning environment; we believe that all students learn in a single physical space and that children must go to that space to “learn”, all of these are important structures that limit future possibilities of the learning experience.

Let’s consider what learning can be for our learners (students) if we peer around one structure that undergird our current educational system…the physical school. Quick, when you think of school what do you think of? You probably thought of a physical building that has individual rooms that are periodically filled and emptied with children who come and get the daily does of knowledge in different subjects. You might also picture busses waiting outside of the school to take children home. School is a place where information is transmuted from older adults to younger children. I would like to do a thought experiment…let’s change the vocabulary of school and see if that has any impact on your impression of learning. Instead of going to school a student is periodically checking into a Learning Center. How does that simple vocabulary change affect your impression of learning? A Learning Center implies a physical space where learning is facilitated throughout the day and evening, not just from the strict time boundaries that undergird our current system. A Learning Center will not have the neat rows of classrooms and hallways because learning can (and does) occur in different spaces at different times for different groups of students.

Educators must reflect on what we have been taught “not to know” so we can move learning into the future. Until we can recognize structures that are taken for granted we will continue to muddle the learning experience for our kids. Educators (I believe) are not in the group of people that willfully decide not to know. In most cases their experiences and training have taught them “not to know”. Moving forward, we must recognize this fact and work to change the invisible structures that prevent us from offering the best learning experiences for our kids.

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

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