October 12, 2009

On Content Knowledge and Stephen Downes

(Update: I've edited this post (twice) to correct some typos and clarify my argument.  The substance has not changed. 3:28 pm EST)

Tracy Won't Get Her Answer.

At least not from Stephen.

Stephen has taken his ball and gone home.

Dick was right.  I shouldn't have bothered.


Here's the problem as I see it. (And if you are familiar with the problem or simply don't care to read my explanation, just skip to the warning at the end of the post.)

Stephen fancies himself as an expert in this area and has a strong desire to maintain that status.  This means that he can't be viewed as being wrong or mistaken, or heaven forfend admitting such, in a disagreement with a non-expert. I've understood this for quite some time.  So, to the extent you get any information from Stephen it will be in the form of a disagreement. You take what you can get.

Stephen apparently takes the position that "kontent knowledge" (I've used a variant spelling because Stephen's definition of that term remains unknown) is not needed for critical reasoning, reading, learning, or whatever the issue happens to be when someone states that "content knowledge" is needed for something or other.  Stephen has become a bit of a gadfly or contrarian in this regard.  Stephen, apparently, also values this gadfly status.

I and many others, on the other hand, do not see how "content knowledge" (my definition isn't necessarily the same as Stephen's definition) can be foregone. To think you need something to think about.  However, we also recognize that learning "content knowledge" is a long laborious process, instructional time is a scarce resource, and, to the extent "content knowledge" need not be learned, then this would provide a good opportunity to re-focus instruction elsewhere to address other student deficiencies.  Thus, the issue of what constitutes content knowledge and whether it is important to teach is an important consideration.

This is why I chose to jump into the thickets with Stephen--not to prove him wrong, but to see if he was right or at least to determine if there was a misunderstanding.  (Hey, who wouldn't want to forgo the tedious learning of content knowledge.  That's win-win as far as I'm concerned.)  And, to the extent he was right, I would have been happy to adopt his view.  And, to the extent there was a misunderstanding, I would be happy to determine where there was agreement and disagreement.  And to the extent the disagreements were irrelevant to instruction and learning, then they could be safely ignored.

I tried.  I failed.  I tried to be nice, but it didn't matter. I bent over backwards to be clear; it didn't matter.  I tried to concede any point I could to get a straight answer; it didn't matter.  I pulled in a neutral third party (Tracy) to eliminate me as the source of any contention; it didn't work. So what went wrong?

I can't be sure. But, it appears that Stephen has gotten himself very far down a path based on a mistake or a misunderstanding (I'm being charitable here because other less charitable alternatives exist) and cannot rectify the situation.  Because rectifying the situation might seem to indicate that Stephen has made a mistake or has misunderstood and by golly Stephen Downes does not make mistakes or misunderstands anything ever. (Stephen, if it'll make you feel better, just blame it on me and my poor communication skills.)

In a nutshell, Stephen has built an elaborate house of cards on a bad foundation.  For whatever the reason, Stephen believes that when anyone (other than he) discusses "content knowledge" the term must include:

1) a fact, a verbal association, or language (For example, "content knowledge" of the concept of the color red must include a verbal association to the word "red" (and perhaps a formal definition of the word "red")) along with

2) an association to the concept (i.e., color the eye perceives) whose boundaries are defined by the many examples (of the color red) that a person has observed or experienced.

That is the functional definition he has proceeded under (as best I can tell).  That is the foundation of his argument.  It's also wrong.  I should know what my own view is and it is not how Stephen characterizes it.  And, I'm sure if you polled almost everyone he's ever disagreed with on this issue, they'd tell you the same thing.  His foundation is bad (for whatever reason) and I think he knows it.

Stephen will be glad to engage and argue with you as long you let him mischaracterize your definition of "content knowledge" (must be (1) and (2)).  However, as soon as you correct him and clarify that "content knowledge" can mean only (2) he will immediately disengage (occasionally with an excuse).  You can see this clearly in my last series of post when I clarified my definition at the outset as not necessarily including (1), Stephen failed to engage at all with me (except on some minor tangential point where he could express a disagreement).  Instead, he engaged only with Tracy whose view he could misrepresent in his customary fashion with a very uncharitable reading of Tracy's clarification.  As soon as, Tracy attempted to correct him, he disengaged.  (The pretext of "contradiction" that he gave was bogus; when engaging in a productive argument you read your opponent's argument so as to maintain consistency when possible.  In this case a consistent reading is possible, in fact, it is relies upon the standard usage of the words.)

This leads me to believe that Stephen does not want to explicitly agree that there is a definition of "content knowledge" that is a prerequisite to reasoning, reading, and the like (in the domain of that knowledge) upon which we might all agree. (For example, if you want to read or reason about the color red, then you need some understanding of the abstract concept of redness, not necessarily the word "red.") I suspect this is because, he believes that by agreeing to a common understanding, he'll be on a slippery slope that might undermine other arguments he favors.  All I know there is a severe reluctance to engage in a serious discussion using the arguments that others make, rather than the argument Stephen wishes they made.

I have seen no indication that this condition is going to improve any time soon.  And, as such, it is fruitless to to engage further with Stephen on this issue.


So, let this post be a warning to all those that come across any writing of Stephen Downes on the issue of content knowledge.  His opinions are based on a mischaracterization of the arguments of his opponents. No serious person holds the views that Stephen is arguing against. He has erected the classic straw man but has disguised the nature of that straw man so it is not readily apparent to the casual reader. It is, however, apparent to the rest of us.  You are wasting your time.

And, to those fellow-travellers of Stephen's who he views as a friend. I implore you to show Stephen the errors in his way.  He last lost credibility on this issue and his reputation is suffering as a consequence.  I have tried to engage with him productively.  I have failed.  I couldn't care less about Stephen's reputation and the fact that many will view his behavior as buffoonish.  But you probably do.  Help him.


Stephen Downes said...

Ken, this post is a pack of lies and you know it.

You cannot argue honestly, and that is why I terminated the thread.

Stephen Downes said...

... though I have to say, your response to me, where you said the word "and" was used in the sense where it meant "or", was a classic.

I've seen weaselling before, but this wins the prize.

KDeRosa said...

Stephen, I have nothing to gain by lying. I especially have nothing to gain by writing easily-detectable lies.

Is Tracy lying too?

Honestly, Stephen. I'm just looking for a straight answer based on the actual position I've set forth. I assume Tracy is doing the same. If you think our positions are so wrong to be internally inconsistent and contradictory, well, then you have nothing to lose by providing a straight answer and pointing out our errors. And, yet you refuse to do that. That is mighty suspicious.

(With respect to the "and" usage, I'll merely point out that Tracy agreed with my usage, not yours. Perhaps that's because I assumed Tracy was using standard English usage and not boolean logic. Although, having never met Tracy in person, it cannot discount the possibility that she is a sophisticated computing machine trying to fool me into thinking she is human. In that case, I should have known that a sophisticated computer would have used boolean logic. So maybe you were right after all. Or maybe I was assuming that a sophicated computer would have been programed to mimic standard English usage in order to fool me. It's all so very confusing.)

Stephen Downes said...

... and finally, I DID answer Tracy's question, very clearly and without ambiguity, and I'll state it AGAIN:

"evidence which would prove that there is some fact without which a knowledge of some language is impossible."

The key point here is you can't just SAY that there is such-and-such a fact, which is what you always do, you have to PROVE it, which is what you never do.

If if you don't like the word 'fact' and you don't think it's a linguistic entity (despite your frequent and repeated assertions that it is) then fine, invent something else - concept, association, whatever you think of today - and put that in there.

I don't give a flying rooftop WHAT you think goes in there, just identify it clearly, and PROVE that you cannot learn language, or critical reasoning, without it.

Or as I expressed it logically, g(f(b)...f(c)) entails (L -> f(a)). Offer some proof g which draws on evidence or experiment f(b)...f(c) which entails that knowledge some language (or critical reasoning, or even mathematics, if you wish) if possible only give f(a), where f(a) can be WHATEVER you want.

Stephen Downes said...

p.s. I do think you have something to gain by lying. I think you see this as a political game, some sort of advocacy, where 'your side' wins if you manage to pull one over on people.

KDeRosa said...


What I meant was that you never responded to Tracy's example after she clarified what she meant by "content knowledge."

As to the precise standard of proff you request, where is your proof (using the same phony rigor)for your assertion that content knowledge isn't needed for critical reasoning and the like?

I am using the same standard you actually use for your own assertions. Let's play fair.

Lastly, what I mean buy advocacy is effectively communicating your argument. You might have the better argument, but you won't convince if your advocacy is poor.

And, really, I would gain nothing from a cheap win achieved by fooling you.

KDeRosa said...

The key point here is you can't just SAY that there is such-and-such a fact, which is what you always do, you have to PROVE it, which is what you never do.

Stephen, I'm not quite sure I follow you here. We are still stuck on trying to find a common definition of "content knowledge." In any event, that's an opinion, not a fact. Certainly not a proven fact at this point in time. And, anything that follows from that opinion will also be opinion. No one is going to be proving anything any time soon. So there will be no winners or losers. At best we we will have counterexamples which might disprove an opinion, but that's about it.

Anonymous said...

Those of us who are more concrete-minded would appreciate an example (if such exists) of how students could learn thinking skills without content knowledge.

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

Some years ago the fashion in the College of Education (and therefore in the Hawaii DOE) was "experiential learning". A common justification for Algebra was "critical thinking" or "thinking skills", in abstract. Policy, it seems, is a game of ping-pong played by Professors of Education, with schools as the table and students as the ball.
Professors of Education (academics generally) avoid careful definition just to keep the (tax-supported) game alive.

Early in my career as a teacher (I was about 30) I had a brief conversation with a bartender (coffee bar), who was not much older than I.
(Him): "What do you do for a living?
(Me): "I'm a teacher.
(Him): "I used to be a teacher."
(Me): "Why'd you quit?"
(Him): "You'll find out."

I did not press. End of conversation.

Eventually, I did.

Anonymous said...

Given that Stephen is quite willing to engage in unrealistic hypotheticals such as the Chinese room, I feel I can answer his call for "evidence which would prove that there is some fact without which a knowledge of some language is impossible."

Well, that we're individual entities is a fact, and without it language makes no sense.

Stephen can equivocate and redefine what most mean by "facts", "knowledge", "language", and "impossible", of course. I think, though, the redefinitions have shown just how far from reality he's gone. One of the allegedly failed objections to the Chinese room is that syntax cannot replace semantics. Even if Searle's claim that syntax can replace semantics is true, no one learns purely syntactically. Would Searle really have approved of his hypothetical as a recommendation of how to teach human children to read?

Tracy W said...

Perhaps that's because I assumed Tracy was using standard English usage and not boolean logic.

Actually, I was informally using set theory, not Boolean logic.
To put it formally:
K is the set of content knowledge.
A is the set of knowledge that is "propositional in form - and specifically, expressible as a sentence or set of sentences"
B is the set of knowledge that is "experiental, or the result of some experience, or some neural state, or some set of appropriate dispositions to respond, or skill or habit of mind, etc"
C is a subset of set B, consisting of knowledge that is "experiental, or the result of some experience, or some neural state" but excluding the remainder of set B.

K is the union of sets A and C, where the union of A and B is greater (contains more elements) than the intersection of A and B.

That's why I got so annoyed when Stephen Downes ignored the set C, which I had specifically added, and started talking about content knowledge as only being set A.

Tracy W said...

"evidence which would prove that there is some fact without which a knowledge of some language is impossible."

Stephen Downes, this is not an answer to my question. What I asked you was, to repeat myself,
"Is there any evidence that could convince you that content knowledge, in the sense of either propositional knowledge or experiental knowledge, or the result of some experience, or some neural state, might be necessary for reading and critical thinking?"

I know I would need evidence, what I want to know is what evidence you count as a proof.

At the moment my expectation is that there is no possible evidence that could convince you to change your mind, in other words, you are beyond all rational thought on this topic. Please fulfill my hopes instead of my expectations and tell me what evidence could possibly convince you to change your mind.

Tracy W said...

Oh drat, the previous comment by me should be:
"K is the union of sets A and C, where the union of A and C is greater (contains more elements) than the intersection of A and C."

My brain was defaulting back to set theory learnt at school which was always sets A and B. My apologies for that error. Although my propositions are as likely to be true for my defined sets A and B as well.

KDeRosa said...

Tracy, Stephen won't respond. He cannot because there is no way he can do so while continuing to misrepresent your argument. That's why he didn't respond to anything I wrote. I'm not sure what game he's trying to play, but I'm getting tired of trying to guess.

In any event, John Searles, the Chinese Room guy, who Stephen cited as supporting his unknown position, agrees with our properly characterized poition, not Stephen's, at least as far as I can tell based on Stephen's disagreeimg.

What is Language: Some Preliminary Remarks

Tracy W said...

KDeRosa, while of course my primary motive for asking what evidence could possibly convince Downes to change his mind is that, even in the face of countless disappointments, my hope springs eternal, I do have a secondary motive for my persistance.

Arguments influence the bystanders as well as the immediate participants. If you ask what evidence could convince someone they were wrong, and they fail to give a straight answer, they are rather implying that their opposition is irrational.