October 14, 2009


Your spouse asks you "Will you wash the dishes tonight"?

You respond, "Sure"

Knowing you're a slacker, your spouse asks, "Promise"?

You respond, "Yes."

Is your affirmative response an example of insurance or its equivalent?  Why or why not?

You certainly need to know something to determine an answer and provide a correct explanation.  I don't care how finely honed your reasoning skills are, you aren't reasoning your way to an answer unless you understand that something. (Although I'm happy to entertain a counterexample, Stephen.) That something is content knowledge.

One thing you need is receptive language to understand all the words I used in the example.  You also need enough expressive language to articulate an answer.  That language makes up part of the content knowledge needed for a successful answer.  But let's take language out of the equation and assume that humans have evolved direct mind reading abilities and are now able to directly access the thought processes of others.  We are now free of the burdens of language.  Language will therefore form no further part of this example. (Though, sadly, in the real world I must continue to use language to explain things to you, hopefully you won't be confused.)

Your knowledge of "insurance" (the concept, not the word) probably comes from your experiences and observations with examples (and possibly non-examples) of insurance--auto insurance, life insurance, health insurance, home and property insurance, disability insurance, insurance in the game of blackjack, an "insurance" run in baseball, and the like.  Those are all imperfect examples of insurance, but you may have been able to tease out the defining features of insurance.  Then you could use those defining features to determine if the above example is an example of insurance.

Your thought process is basically pattern recognition.  Do you recognize the common pattern inherent in all the examples of insurance you've experienced or observed in your life?  Does this new form of insurance fit the pattern?

This is a difficult problem because the defining features of insurance, assuming you can even identify them, are rather nebulous and complicated themselves.  In fact, the defining features of insurance are all higher-order concepts, just like insurance is.  Let me give you a hint:  Insurance has four main defining features.  Now, you have four patterns to wrestle with.  Yikes.

The four defining features of insurance are concept knowledge.  Notice how I haven't used the word "definition" so far.  Knowing the definition of insurance or its four defining features, isn't going to help much.  So go ahead and close down that tab your're using to google the word insurance.  And for those of you who I didn't catch in time, did the definition you located help much?  Probably not.  You're probably already googling one of the words in the definition that you also aren't quite sure of.  So stop right there.

I don't need google to tell you the definition of insurance.  But, mine is a sad story and I will make a brief digression in the hope that it serves as a cautionary tale for you.

The year was 1979.  Jimmy Carter was president (shudder).  Margaret Thatcher had just been elected prime minister.  Rocky II was in the theaters.  A little gadget called the Walkman had just entered the market.  I was in seventh grade and had just learned the definition of insurance.

 And by learned I mean I was forced to memorize the definition. My seventh grade teacher (whose name I can't remember ironically) made us memorize the definition of only one word.  That word was insurance.

Why insurance?  I have no idea.  We didn't do anything with the definition afterward.  Perhaps we were being punished for something we had done.  To this day I don't know.  But here's one thing that has stuck with me ever since:  the definition of the word insurance.

Insurance is a contract which guarantees against risk or loss.

It's seared into my brain much like Senator John Kerry's trip to Cambodia.
But, I still didn't understand what insurance was.  You can probably figure out why.

In fact, I can give you four reasons why I didn't understand what insurance was: 1. contract, 2. guarantee, 3. risk, and 4. loss.  To understand the concept of insurance I needed to understand the concept of contract, the concept of guarantee, the concept of risk, and the concept of loss.  These are all higher order concepts.  Insurance itself is a higher order concept -- a higher order concept whose four defining features are all higher order concepts.  Yikes.  Oh wait I already said that.

And as you premature googlers probably found out, even looking up the definitions for the four defining features probably makes matters worse.

So, what's the problem? The problem is that knowing all those definitions does not constitute concept knowledge.  Which is not to say that these definitions aren't useful to read or learn, at least initially.  But concept knowledge requires something more or something else.  Think about it.

And we'll get to the that  something else in the next post.  So take off the disco albums and platform shoes because we're returning to 2009.

(And, Dick, I promise we're almost at the dinosaurs.)


Anonymous said...

Thank you. That example is helpful.

Mikethelawstudent said...

You touch on fascinating features of the epistemological concept of words. In for communication you have to have some sort of agreement as to the meaning. So if you say "insurance" and my attachment of meaning is something different than yours than we have not communicated. I am finding that this happens to me more and more. I am currently in lawschool and contract now has a different meaning to me than most people. I now "know" that in order for a contract you have to have offer, acceptance and consideration (something exchanged) so that the promise cannot possibly be insurance (if insurance is necessarily a contract). But others wouldnt have that definition... anyway I like your post.



Dick Schutz said...

Yeah, I'm still waiting for the dinosaur shoe to drop, but this was a good explanation. What's the difference between a "higher order concept" and an "abstraction?" I don't think there is one. "Higher order" is honorific. How high is "high?" What's "above" and "below" this "higher order concepts.

"Insurance" has real world reference. I marked the same keyed response that Mikethelawstudent did. But I didn't have the precise knowledge of "contract" that Mike has.

Where EdLand gets into trouble is with REIFIED abstractions like "comprehension," "problem solving," and "critical thinking" that can't be taught as such.

I once thought that "problem solving" could be taught, because that's what I'd been taught. This happened to be at a moment in time, when cost wasn't a limiting factor for educational R&D (That didn't last long). We were able to hire the "best minds in the country from the best universities in the country" None of them were able to come up with instruction that amounted to anything more than stunts. After 3 years, we concluded that kids' biggest problem to solve was school itself. So we folded the tent on the wild goose chance, and came down to earth.

The thing that distinguishes experts like you and Mike with respect to law, from non-lawyers like me, is that you guys have a well-defined structure of Technical Lexicon that the rest of us lack.

This holds for instruction from preschool to graduate school, but the structure isn't well-defined and doesn't get well-defined until upper-division college and graduate school. So teachers don't know what they're teaching and how it fits into what came before or will come after. And kids don't know either. They're just going through the motions.

One of the merits of DI is that it makes the path explicit. There are other ways of doing this, but that's a whole nother story, and I want to hear the dinosaur story.

KDeRosa said...

I don't think there is a difference between abstraction and higher order concept. Both are defined by features which aren't readily observable. I use higher order to distinguihs between basic sensory concept whose feature(s) is readily observable. Both are abstract.