Chicken or egg? Thoughts about thinking

Which comes first? The chicken of knowledge or the egg of thinking?

Over the past few years I have been advocating the view that thinking is a very shallow experience without knowledge. It seems self-evident that you can’t think about something you don’t yet know. Give it a go… tricky, isn’t it?

But not only that, the more you know the better you can think about it. If I ask you to think about, say quantum physics, unless you know something about it you’ll probably be reduced to “What’s quantum physics?” or repeating quantum physics, quantum physics over and over again. More likely though, you probably won’t bother to think at all. I knew almost nothing about quantum physics until reading Jim Al-Khalili’s Quantum: A Guide For The Perplexed. I found it fascinating and am currently reading Brian Green’s marvellous, The Elegant Universe . The more I find out, the more interesting my thoughts become.

Typically incautious, I intervened in this Twitter conversation last night:

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 13.07.57

I think I know what he means – that what we discover only has meaning as we apply our cognitive faculties to it – but it sounds an awful lot like simply thinking hard enough about, well, nothing, will produce some sort of insight a la Buddha. And it won’t. We have to have something to think about.

Ed then went on to say, “Human cognition is about thinking not remembering. If you like, remembering is the way human cognition brings time and space into being.” This is of course true, but it’s disingenuous in the extreme to suggest that thought can precede knowledge. Cristina Milos suggests the following:

Screen Shot 2015-04-24 at 13.14.40And she’s absolutely right, but no one is arguing that thinking is unimportant, are they? I’ve never come across anyone – ‘neo-traditionalist’ (whatever that means) or otherwise – who doesn’t agree that thinking is far more important than simply storing an inert stack of ingots in the repository of the mind. No one’s keen on students ‘merely‘ knowing. Remembering is never the point, but it is, as far as I can see, the only reliable means to improve thought.

Once someone knows a thing then they should be encouraged to question it. Of course cultural transmission shouldn’t be about inculcating students into believing what their teachers believe; students must consider and critique; they must weigh arguments and form judgements; in short, they must think. But you cannot think about what you don’t know. And this is just the beginning. Once you can think about something, you can then think with it; what we know lives inside us and touches every aspect of our lives.

As to the question of whether chickens preceded eggs, this might be of interest.

29 Responses to Chicken or egg? Thoughts about thinking

  1. We ask some children to think and talk about what makes them happy, what makes them unhappy. They have knowledge of being happy and being unhappy. But where has this knowledge come from? Then, in the conversation we might ask them whether they find it easy or hard to think about these things. Or we might ask them to think about whether thinking about these things is the same as thinking about football or sums or 1066. What’s the same, what’s different?

    • David Didau says:

      I’m not sure what point you’re making here Michael – if it’s some advice on how to get children to think about what they know, then thanks.

      If it’s a suggestion that we should be content with what children know about their immediate surroundings and that to expose them to the challenging, troubling, exciting richness of the world, then no thanks.

      • Loving your work David. I too believe that thinking and knowledge are so intertwined it’s hard to separate. No one can think in a language they don’t know but, even thinking a few words of that language can strengthen the thoughts and by communicating those thoughts back and forth with others we strengthen the thinking and naturally develop more knowledge.

        There’s some research about how we can’t distinguish colours we have no word for… so the colour exists to those who have the word but can’t be seen by those who don’t, they say.

        I think I get what Michael is saying: I know I’ll think, communicate and develop my knowledge far more elaborately and purposely about any ‘academic’ topic that elicits an emotion in me. If I feel no emotion then I’ll easy learn facts and ace a test, but I won’t be thinking, so won’t have discussion-worthy thoughts to communicate with others and so my knowledge will never flourish beyond what’s externally rewarded. Tapping into the importance of emotion, perhaps?

      • I was thinking that we can think about thinking using knowledge we have acquired simply through living our lives as sentient beings. Thinking about thinking does not necessarily need a prior input of instruction or of knowledge in the conventional sense. We have knowledge of our feelings right from (as you say) day 1. At some point (others can suggest when) there will be a time when we can indeed invite children to think about how they think about these emotions and feelings.

    • Do we ‘know’ happiness or ‘feel’ it… even then does what we give the name ‘happiness’ to exist in the same way for everyone? Whereas we all know Arsenal are crap. 😉

    • teachwell says:

      Precisely Martin Robinson – the concept of happiness is a feeling and we all have our own experiences of it – some of which are the same/similar to others but I find the whole idea about thinking in a void ridiculous.

      Having taught young children who really don’t know anything about certain topics (The Great Fire of London for example) – it is even more difficult if they don’t know that London is a place so you can imagine the problems!!!

      it is bizarre to ask them to think about something they know nothing about. A recipe for 30 blank looks your way but nothing else. What you can do it give them knowledge of others experience or their ideas as a starting point which they can build on but no thinking occurs in a void.

      I think of it as a bit like learning a language – obviously we have an innate ability to learn language but if no one speaks to you then it is redundant for these purposes. Equally we have the capacity to think but without knowledge there is nothing to think about.

  2. This stuff is fascinating. But this debate is odd. People appear to have a philosophical position about the importance of knowledge/facts and argue back from that position to thought, and what it is. So, the debate really appears to be about how much freethinking creativity should be present in the school day. Knowledge is taken, by one side, to be the enemy of freethinking (almost a shackle), and taken by the other side to be the stuff of freedom…..

    The real question appears to be under what circumstances does knowledge stifle productive thought…….and when does a deficit of knowledge stifle productive thought?

    • Knowledge can be the constraint that produces creative thinking…

    • TheOtherDrX says:

      Hmm.
      Those are two good questions.
      1) “Under what circumstances does knowledge stifle productive thought?” When we think we know the answer but we don’t actually know.
      2) “When does a deficit of knowledge stifle productive thought?” As above!

      I’ll go as far as:
      “You can only think you know what you think you know”.
      Fully accepting that you ‘only think you know’ shouldn’t stifle any creative thought. Given that I keep disproving my own research findings, and often that of others, ‘what I actually know’ is rather fluid.
      As a result, my life is a seemingly unending series of caveats.

  3. David says:

    Well, this is standing on the shoulders of giants stuff, no? One’s thoughts are premised on what one knows–presumably only the child fresh out of the womb has a completely blank slate–and the not for long.

    As an historian, I find these sorts of discussions rather aburd, as so much of what we want to teach in terms of critical thinking or historiography is for students to understand the points of view or biases inherent in what the authors of the past and current historians write. An anthropologist would say the same thing about rituals or cultural products–heck even the internet thing I am typing into is premised on a certain degree of bias, be it the language used, the experiences of the user, the format of the page or the device I am using–these all shape what I am typing into this box as I think about this topic.

    Speaking of experiences, another Hannah Arendt item I would recommend on thinking is from her essay “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy,” from 1965. I don’t believe this is on-line, but you can find it in the collection of her works entitled Responsibility and Judgment. In the wake of the Eichmann trial and her book on the subject, she developed the thesis that individuals were able to take part in the horrors of the Nazi regime through a lack of thinking. From thinking comes morality, and this can only be accomplished in the solitude where one has an internal dialog with one’s self. This is different from loneliness, which happens when we become bored in our solitude and reach out to others, or isolation, when we rid ourselves of outside distractions to focus on a task. Like any good conversation, the ones we have with ourselves are best when we are informed on a subject.

    She writes: “Thinking and remembering is the human way of striking roots, of taking one’s place in the world into which we all arrive as strangers. What we usually call a person or a personality, as distinguished from a mere human being or a nobody, actually grows out of this root-striking process of thinking…If he is a thinking being, rooted in his thoughts and remembrances, and hence knowing that he has to live with himself, there will be limits to what he can permit himself to do, and these limits will not be imposed on him from the outside but will be self-set….[These limits] are absent where men skid only over the surface of events, where they permit themselves to be carried away without ever penetrating into whatever depth they may be capable of.”

    • David Didau says:

      If the discussion absurd, it’s even more absurd for you to join in 😉

      • David says:

        Well, perhaps I’m an absurdist…

        At any rate, my “absurd” comment wasn’t that you posted this, but that there are those who want to deemphasize content knowledge (“it’s all on the internet!”) in the name of teaching what they perceive as thinking skills.

    • the ghost says:

      David animals are unable to pass on thinking ,so each generation as to re-think what they think or it is lost until it is thought of again,because we can pass it on it ‘s no longer unique,the advantage is we can actually learn from thought not lost.

      But we can also learn indoctrination like flat earth thinking & many more

      I have to also disagree that people didn’t think about what they did & didn’t do during the Nazi regime,fear override logic,it is something humanity through nature will always have,it is the lack of courage to but righteousness above your own safety & history shows that these kind of acts are quite rear.

      The reason & logic behind killing people who fail & fail badly in following these heroic actions is to instil another fear in people that not over coming fear has consequences also
      All these are lesson our children will learn ,certainly should be taught,but the question is did fear force the application of thought (rockets,nuclear weapons) or create thought,we will always be blighted by the chicken & the egg

      But is that really important,having a fear free culture to teach & learn to express yourself without ridicule is what is most important,for from thinking that the bath water is going to run all over the floor ,may not be original thinking but it was once just as realising it’s creating displacement was!
      it’s having those eureka moments & writing them down for the application of other generations (Galileo’s helicopter)

  4. If you bring this back to nature most animals learn from the parents & built in survival instincts,humans can learn from reading so fact can be passed on until it is proven wrong(flat earth),so identifying pure thought is difficult because even though you think it ,you often find out it has been thought of before,but that doesn’t stop it from being advanced into areas were it hasn’t been applied before .
    Or using it to fathom out previously unfathomed ideas,learning without questioning ie pure thought is to stand still,there will always be more learning than pure thought but the more you learn,only opens doors that were closed to you,that even pure thought can not open!?

  5. Kerri Flanigan says:

    I tank this is a great analogy, thanks for your thinking and your inspired knowledge!

  6. How about this…

    > For the infant (i.e. newborn upwards) – all knowledge comes through the laying down of sense memories – from external sources and internal feelings. There is no thinking.

    > The base of “thought” is the patterned sequential activation of memories.

    > As we get older, these sequential activations become part of conscious awareness.

    > As our knowledge of language develops, we learn to narrate, guide and track the memories, developing the ability to compare and contrast them and so on, and this is what we think of as… well, thinking.

    All thinking is contingent on the knowledge structures we have – particularly language.

    • … Of course we can continue to lay down memories directly from sensory perception – if I’m in a car crash, I’ll struggle to forget it.

      … Purely conceptual and ‘derived’ knowledge requires us to consciously think about what’s in our working memory.

      … Habitual – unconscious – knowledge develops initially from repeated conscious thinking, and then further through the unconscious repetition (overlearning).

  7. mmiweb says:

    As ever I think that the ever present danger is reductionism into a single camp. There is a complexity of thinking, knowing and feeling that cannot be reduced into – you need to know before you think – or you think therefore you know – or that the things you feel more about you think about more or …

    Also the dangers of reductionism into there is “the knowledge” or “the fact” to be leant or memorised or processed.

    It is the complex interplay of knowledge coming in from multiple sources (sensory, discursive, “expert”) being processed in the complexity of the individual’s brain and the interplay between that individual and others in discussion, debate and dialogue.

    This will then lead to the creation of new knowledge – either at the level of the individual (though that knowledge may already be in the wider knowledge domain) or at the level of the society which will feed into the process.

    • Hello Cristina…

      Thank you very much for these links. I have to say that I think that together they make one of the best summaries of the interaction between different forms of knowledge in Mathematics instruction and understanding that I’ve read. You draw on sources in an extremely balanced, clear and persuasive way.

      Although I would say that they can’t be the definitive word on the matter in question in David’s blog – as the case of Math(s) has some differences from the teaching of, say, History, or knowledge of the World in general – they do seem to make a really key point that should be simply obvious from conundrum that David has identified in the title to this post: Namely, that any attempts to prioritize one aspect over another weakens the whole.

      In other words, on the grand scheme of things, once children are old enough to actually be defined as ‘thinking’ – all attempts to teach knowledge are enhanced by attempts to increase levels of thinking, and all attempts to teach thinking are enhanced by attempts to increase knowledge levels. You want more eggs? Answer: More chickens. More chickens? Answer: More eggs.

      Thanks 🙂

  8. […] David Didau critiqued my view that  you only know what you think suggesting that “it’s disi… […]

  9. bt0558 says:

    Does this post beg the question ……does knowledge only arise from conscious thought?”

    Just wondering.

    I will now read all of the comments including the incisive comments and posts by CristinaM and I imagine I will find the answer.

    I feel that the post presents a very simplistic view of the human mind, one that has some face validity but little else. We will see.

  10. Fran says:

    This is similar to the skills versus creativity debate in D&T. Can you be creative without any skills? In other words can you think innovatively about making something you don’t yet have the skills to make? I would say “no” but that would be the non-mainstream view in this field. I don’t think you can think effectively about something without knowledge. But thought will build knowledge. Knowledge is the bricks and thought is the mortar.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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