Knowledge: From Fascination to Understanding to Expertise
I love learning. It sounds a bit reductive, and unfinished as you might ask, “about what?” and feel unanswered when I respond with “everything.” I truly just like the process of gaining knowledge. Of course, specific interests come and go - as a child I spent a lot of time thinking about the Olympics and Japan, I moved on to geography and globalization in high / boarding school (with the occasional celebrity fascination), and in college I focused on development studies and identity studies. They all have led in some ways to one another, and that is one of the most fun things about growing older- you know more. You can move into sub-sectors, building deeper and more elaborate knowledge on specific examples, and then even be able to produce the knowledge yourself!
I loved my entire formal education because it nurtured my curiosity and gave me the tools and people to answer my questions and to prod deeper. I was very fortunate to go to both a boarding school and a university where students are invited, suggested, and even pushed to develop their own learning path- decide what they want to learn about, and then do that. But at the same time, there do exist parameters of some requirements, and even if you are in a class you want, the syllabus will always have a dull section and there may be limits on how you can pursue your research and present your findings (i.e you may have to google stuff and give a powerpoint, whereas you really want to travel somewhere and make a documentary). What I’ve liked most about being in “the real world” the past few months is that I feel like the slate is clean- I don’t have to keep learning new things if I don’t want to (no more picking classes every 6 months) but seeing that I do want to, I can pick anything and do it however I’d like!
In these few months since graduation, what I’ve kept myself busy thinking about are religion and spirituality, the Rwandan genocide and development in the country since then, class and privilege - especially in young adults, North Korea, and professional tennis. It is clear that these interests are too many to focus on equally and that some will remain overtime and my knowledge will deepen, and some will be more ephemeral- a book or two, a documentary, and a few conversations.
In thinking about these levels of knowledge across issues, and specifically when on a RwandAir flight to Kigali asking myself, “how much do I really know about Rwanda?” I came up with the process of The Growth of Knowledge below:
It is very simple yet, I think, also useful in giving some sort of direction in reflecting on how knowledge on a subject evolves- and importantly- how the level of insight grows with each step. It is also important to note that for different issues each step may take longer or shorter, requiring less effort to move between them, than the others. For example, it is very easy to be fascinated by an event like the Rwandan genocide, but the learning curve to get up to understanding is very steep. Alternatively, moving from fascination to understanding about professional tennis is much easier. In this example it comes down to the difficulty of the content itself: comprehending human emotion and causes of violence is much more complicated than understanding the way a sport works. But the learning curve can also be hindered or catalyzed by the availability of or access to knowledge- for example it is impossible to learn specific things about North Korea because it is well-guarded and secretive, but the Korean language itself is in countless books, media, etc so access to acquiring that knowledge is easier.
What divides the three steps of course, also depends on the subject matter, but can be assessed based on four- very interrelated questions (partly in the graph itself as bullet points).
- The first is”why you know?” - going from a general interest to deeper desire for holistic knowledge and increasing insight.
- Second, “What you know?” which starts with the basic facts and figures, grows into various sub-sectors of knowledge, and increases further with first-hand personal understanding.
- Third, “How you know?” starting with the most readily available and easy to access information and then growing in specificity, complexity, and personal unique information from experience and exposure.
- Fourth, “What you do with what you know?” this goes back to how insight increases with each step. It involves deeper and deeper questioning and clarifying those who know more until slowly you become that someone who “knows more.” You must then begin to think about how to present the information and analyze what is important, what needs to be further examined, and then begin to do that examining yourself and helping others to go through the steps towards knowledge.
Again, this is a simple tool for reflecting and in few ways is it quantifiable or scientific- but I think it is useful in asking the important questions of “How can we learn?” and “How much do we know?” and to also show that growing in knowledge to expertise requires an increase in insight most of all- that constantly reading simple books on a subject will never make you really understand- we need to increase the complexity and push ourselves to build our insight. The tool also gives direction and reasoning to learning more and what to do when we know more- it is almost a motivation or a map of learning.
To end, I must say that similarly to the model itself, I feel that “liking to learn” can be a process on its own accord- and that the model helps to move from “understanding” learning to “expertise” on learning- and as I continue to think more about learning and talk with others who know much more, the model will adapt.
Keep thinking and keep learning!