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Originality, Part Five – Originality and Knowledge

February 23, 2013


In previous posts in this series I have explored relationships between originality, education and learning, and ways in which originality can be developed. If you’re starting here, welcome, and you may find it useful to at least skim these previous posts. In the last of this series, for now at least, I shall explore the big one, the relationship between originality and knowledge.

Why do I call this the big one?

On knowledge

The academic world reveres knowledge. Research is valued as the production of knowledge. Teaching is often described (and also experienced) as the transmission or handing on of knowledge. Expertise involves (not exclusively) having knowledge. Experts are people who know a lot. This academic view and valuing of knowledge is reflected in the popular domain, where quizzes mostly value knowledge, much less often valuing the ability to reason, solve problems, or make connections, seen in exceptions such as The Krypton Factor and Brain of Britain.

How does originality relate to this very high value placed on knowledge?

Originality and the development of new knowledge

One way is through the role of originality in the development of new knowledge. This is an often mysterious, hidden, hard-to-describe process, even for those who develop such new knowledge. And even when the process is described; sometimes very vividly, as in Kekule’s account (see of realising that a possible structure for benzene could be a six-carbon-atom ring, rather than a string – this idea came to him through a vivid daydream of a snake eating its own tail.

Do such accounts offer help for those who would create new knowledge? I think so. Such stories, perhaps with the hero narrative played down a little, suggest the value of letting imagination run free, allowing wild images to form and then checking what implications the images may have for the problem at hand.

We find an important link here between originality and knowledge, through a scientific method in which hypotheses, models, explanations can be developed through any process at all, then tested rigorously for their predictive or explanatory power.

Creating as well as testing hypotheses

It may be that current education places a little too much emphasis on the rigorous testing of hypotheses, and not enough on generating the hypotheses in the first place. This imbalance may in turn draw a picture of science and technology, and perhaps other disciplines involving some element of critical analysis – hopefully, then, most disciplines –as more procedural, more knowledge-stuffed, and less welcoming of originality, than they actually are. A route here to making many disciplines more attractive, to a wider range of students; perhaps, also, to making them more fun, and maybe even more productive?

This does not mean a lowering of standards. Only ideas that survive tough tests will become accepted as valued knowledge. The academy is safe.

Originality valued as the development of hypotheses for testing can also bring to life the sometime empty rhetoric of constructivist approaches to learning, by being explicit about what are being constructed – hypotheses – and saying how these hypotheses will be used.

I realise, or hope, that there are vast differences between different disciplines in these respects.

Perils of over-emphasising knowledge

I sometimes fear that over-emphasis on knowledge; whether propositional (know what), procedural (know how), or conceptual / theoretical (know why); may tend to drive out originality. But before that: there is a hierarchy of valuings of knowledge. The language of education shows clearly how propositional and conceptual / theoretical knowledge are valued over know-how. The UK Minister of Education has made this utterly explicit very recently – Know-how is usually referred to as skill, and generally has lower status than knowledge. (Events can re-balance our view of this. As an eye surgeon replaced my somewhat cloudy lens with a shiny new plastic one earlier this week I was hugely more concerned with her skill than her knowledge, much though I also value the latter. Actually I was unconscious at the time, but you know what I mean.)

A race to the bottom

Knowledge on the page or the screen looks so certain, does it not? The first, natural, thing for a learner to do with knowledge on a page seems to be to try to learn it. Teachers, valuing what they know, have a corresponding tendency to teach it. The players having variously taught it and learned it, the next obvious thing is to assess it, to find out if it has been learned. Propositional knowledge consists mainly of – well, propositions. Conceptual / theoretical knowledge similarly consists of concepts and theories. And all of these tend to be taught and learned as stuff. The pathology of this is relatively easy to explain. Learning becomes memorising. Memorised knowledge is relatively easy to assess. However ambitious we are. And the sheer quantity of knowledge out there, sifted through the quality-assuring processes of refereeing and review, is enough to fill and over-fill any course we could design. Obviously, we must teach more. Because there is more to know. This is a kind of race to the bottom, not because knowledge is unimportant, but because, increasingly, it isn’t enough

Our concerns about originality

Also, I suspect that we are ambivalent about originality. I suggested in earlier posts typologies of originality, from local and (on a separate axis) perhaps not world-changing (“I had that idea, though it may well be flawed, and others may well have had it before.” to both global and world-changing originality (a version of e=mc2 in 1905). Thinking about originality may push us to reflect critically on the nature and extend of our own originality, reflection which we may not may not always find encouraging.

And anyway originality is hard to assess, is it not? Particularly if we are assessing local originality, where there may be an inverse relationship between knowledge and originality – the less I know, the more locally original ideas I may have.

The normal academic instinct, I think, at this point, is to let knowledge trump originality, to say “You should have known that.” rather than “Well done for having that idea.”

I feel, on balance, that this generally is an unhelpful stance for a teacher to take. Why?

A changing relationship between knowledge and originality

Knowledge is becoming much more readily accessible. The machines have replaced much manual work. They are now replacing more and brain work, progressively leaving the more and more difficult and more rewarding work to us. The relationship between Moore’s Law of progress in the power of computers and their ability to do some of the difficult stuff we do (such as, of course, being original) may nor may not be linear. But there will be some positive correlation, now and into the future.

But, however this plays out, I’m pretty sure that originality in graduates and academics will continue to become a more and more important and valued ability. Of course our graduates will still know a lot. But their knowledge will increasingly be a side-product of their ability to be critically original, working with and shaping the technology, and accessing and using the knowledge, selectively and critically, when they need it.

  1. Thanks, Dave. This is great. Could you be persuaded to blog about beauty and aesthetics in research? Something I’m trying to think through myself.

    • Nick, thanks for the comment and the link. Beauty and aesthetics in research. Wow. There’s a story to tell there. If we can find it! Look forward to reading your blog!

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