David Perkins: Learning as “Knowing Your Way Around The Neighborhood”

As we know, there are different levels of understanding or knowing. We can know the “that” and we can know the “how” in the course of academic inquiry. But the “that” and the “how” don’t insure depth of knowing or the competency to function in working domains.

In the Foreword of Brent Wilson’s CONSTRUCTIVIST LEARNING ENVIRONMENT: CASE STUDIES IN INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGN, David Perkins expressed a perspective that is insightful. Perkins wrote:

“In his introduction to this volume, Brent Wilson aptly points out that the idea of a learning environment evokes the notions of place and space, room to move and explore, and generous access. Just like your neighborhood……You knew your way around your neighborhood. Wilson also suggests that among the many ways we think of knowledge, the notion of a learning environment resonates best with a vision of knowledge as meaning constructed by interaction with one’s environment.

“There is a tradition in philosophy that looks to our everyday language for insight into the character of knowledge. For example, we say ‘I know such-and-such’ and ‘I know how to do such-and-such’……..A view of knowledge fixated only on knowing that —–knowing facts or more broadly, propositions—–simply lacks compass. So can we find a phrase about knowing that especially evokes what we learn from an environment? In fact, one was already mentioned: knowing your way around. A common expression usually unreflectively used, knowing your way around subtly underscores what knowledge is generally like in rich multidimensional situations. And not just physical neighborhoods. We can sensibly speak of knowing your way around the stock market, playing baseball, and any discipline, for instance, physics or English literature. To really know any of these domains requires a kind of flexible orientation to what things and places they contain, what resources they afford, and how to get jobs done.”

“The notion of knowing your way around amplifies the dimensions of our conceptions of knowing. A sparse notion of knowledge that includes only knowing that and knowing how is not enough for most kinds of learning we aspire to. To be sure, knowing your way around anything from your neighborhood to quantum physics and beyond certainly calls for knowing that and knowing how. But it depends on much more as well—–having a sense of orientation, recognizing problems and opportunities, perceiving how things work together, possessing a feel for the texture and structure of the domain. It encompasses not just explicit but tacit knowledge, not just focal awareness but peripheral awareness, not just a sense of what’s there but what’s interesting and valuable, as urged by Michael Polanyi. Better than knowing that, knowing how, or like names for knowledge, knowing your way around resonates with the notion of a learning environment.”

“With all that, it’s worth remembering that the circumstances of learning can be quirky indeed……Ask me to name something I learned very well…..I might say Euclidean geometry in high school…..Euclidean geometry does not appear on most people’s list of school’s greatest hits. But it was on mine…..Our format for homework was the classic two-column proof, a staid tradition that for me worked wonders. Writing all those proofs, I found it a nuisance to keep looking up the wording of theorems, axioms, and definitions in the text, so I memorized them all. This rote exercise produced an unexpected spinoff: a heady fluency in thinking with the concepts…..I felt that I really knew my way around Euclidean geometry.”

“To put it another way, I had constructed…..a “knowledge object,” a mental representation (not necessarily visual) of a subject area that allows both panoramic overviews and flexible access to the details of any part. One of the most important long-term consequences of this was that I knew what it was to know my way around a subject matter. The experience became a yardstick for me, something to measure degrees of understanding with…..I not only learned geometry but learned something about learning.”

“Now imagine that we could bring to almost everyone the kinds of well-wrought constructivist-oriented, technologically-supported learning environments discussed in this volume. They might give many students a chance not just to know their way around something academic, but to know what it is to know their way around something academic. When you know what this is, you are in a better position to function as a learner. You are more oriented to the enterprise of learning. Knowing what it is to know your way around is a compass for minds in any ‘hood’.”

This insight is worth thinking about. For example, I had just talked to representatives of Human Relations departments of an international agency and an international NGO. Spontaneously, they each said the same thing: that the biggest problem their respective organizations faced was the high turnover of new employees due to the problems of adjusting to the unique culture and ways of their organizations. Apparently, many new employees got to the “knowing how” and the “knowing that,” but they gave up on the “knowing their way around” their organizations, i.e.

“having a sense of orientation, recognizing problems and opportunities, perceiving how things work together, possessing a feel for the texture and structure of the domain…..not just explicit but tacit knowledge, not just focal awareness but peripheral awareness, not just a sense of what’s there but what’s interesting and valuable……a kind of flexible orientation to what things and places they contain, what resources they afford, and how to get jobs done.”

Why had so many new employees fallen short of knowing their way around their new organizations? I scratched my head to think of what would help them and suddenly I remembered my own way of getting to know my way around new organizations. Long ago, I, too, had constructed a “knowledge object”, a mental representation, namely the panoramic overview and realization that all organizations are like tribes. And every time I entered a new organization, I made believe that I was a friendly, respectful anthropologist examining that new tribe and looking for three things: their belief-system, their customs and rituals, and their “way” of doing things. Then I looked even more deeply. I looked at their origins, how they evolved, what pressures they had been subjected to, how their leadership group originally formed and how it had evolved. I made it a interior game of the mind, like solving a mystery, and I tried to maintain my sense of humor as I carried on my silent “tribal behavior study” of the organization. This was my “knowledge object”, my “mental representation” for “knowing my way around the neighborhood.”

Accordingly, I would equip each new employee of any organization with the fundamental perspective of this kind of “silent” anthropologist; and I would make sure new employees received plenty of debriefings by a “senior anthropologist” in the organization’s HR department to bring them to the point of conclusively “knowing their way around the neighborhood.”  In turn, that learning process would help members of the American workforce to understand and function within other new domains with increased insight, competency, and equanimity.