Jim Al-Khalili and the curse of knowledge
Why facts matter
Jim Al-Khalili is a professor of theoretical physics and chair in the public engagement in science at the University of Surrey in the U.K. He fits the description of a physics expert. However, I don’t think he has studied cognitive science or educational psychology, for reasons that will become apparent. Never mind, he has been, “giving considerable thought recently to the way we teach science at school”. And that’s enough, right? I mean, how hard a problem can education be? We’ve all been to school. We all know how it works. We should be grateful that a brain capable of working with Dirac operators has invested a bit of time in our field.
And the result of this thinking? Well, it appears that Al-Khalili has independently rediscovered the 100+ years tradition of educational progressivism, but in the context of science teaching. It’s almost as if it is a new idea and as if, as a trainee science teacher in the 1990s, I hadn’t already been indoctrinated in its clichés.
Where to start? What about, “Why spend so much of the school science curriculum loading up children’s brains with facts about the world that they can just look up anyway?” Why, indeed? Well, E. D. Hirsch answered this question 22 years ago in the pages of American Educator.
Here’s my version.
A good working model of the mind — one that makes educationally relevant predictions — is that it consists of a limited working memory and an effectively limitless long-term memory. Working memory is roughly equivalent to our conscious thoughts — the ones we know we are having. Unfortunately, it can only process about four distinct items at a time. However, what constitutes an item depends on what is in long-term memory. We can draw entire schemas of knowledge into working memory effortlessly and bring them to bear on new problems without straining working memory capacity. Knowledge is what we think with. We cannot think with inert knowledge that is sitting out there on the internet.
And this doesn’t even address the issue of how we know what to look up, how we comprehend the answers and how we evaluate their veracity, all of which require yet more knowledge. Yes, some heuristics are useful, but nothing beats relevant knowledge. Can 5G cause COVID? I could use heuristics to evaluate websites that claim it can, or I could draw on my knowledge of radiowaves and viruses and immediately reject it as a stupid idea.
But, you know, Gradgrind, facts, rote learning etc.
Al-Khalili instead wants to focus on teaching students about the scientific method and writes as if such teaching is currently absent from the science curriculum. It is most definitely not. The national curriculum that applies in England terms this ‘working scientifically’. In Australia, the scientific method takes up a full third of the current curriculum, and more if you count the humanities-style ‘science as a human endeavour’ rubbish.
The scientific method, in the abstract, can be taught reasonably quickly. You do not need an entire curriculum to do this. Yet in the abstract, it’s a bit dull. In order to do anything interesting with it, we need a foundation of scientific knowledge. It is this tension that leads to classic school science investigations such as testing the strength of wet paper towels. Such investigations are possible without much science knowledge, but are hardly inspiring.
What is interesting? Dinosaurs. Space. Aliens. Explosions. Most of these are subjects we cannot easily experiment with. Most of them involve learning knowledge. With these examples in mind, it is easy to see through the highly pejorative spin involved in reducing scientific knowledge to, “loading up children’s brains with facts.”
One thing I do not question is Al-Khalili’s sincerity.
We have already seen that knowledge held in long-term memory can be drawn upon effortlessly. It is this very effortlessness that may cause knowledgeable individuals such as Al-Khalili to undervalue this knowledge and to fail to empathise with those who lack it. This effect is known as the ‘curse of knowledge’ and Al-Khalili appears to be under its spell.
Those afflicted with the curse of knowledge are dangerous because they tend to advocate for the removal of the ladders they climbed to reach the cognitive heights they command today.
Unfortunately, education will continue to be subject to well-intentioned but redundant musings from the likes of Al-Khalili and George Monbiot. Editors clearly find them compelling even when we put the political imperative of criticism of the incumbent government to one side.
Our challenge as a profession is to relentlessly focus on evidence and practical knowledge, and to push for our voices to be heard.