Evolution and the Construction of Knowledge

kcofrinsha's picture

The definition and origin of knowledge is a complex question that cuts across many academic disciplines such as Psychology,Education, Philosophy and Biology and raises many questions.  Where does knowledge come from?  Do our brains truly create newknowledge or simply reproduce what we have seen, been taught andexperienced?  What is the best wayto pass knowledge on to future generations?  These are complex questions without a definitive answer.  Over time, many peoplehave expressed extremely different ideas about knowledge.  However, one constant seems to be the changein views on both the origin and nature of knowledge in an almost evolutionary process.

     There was a time when knowledge was seen only as static, true and unchanging.  Educators often refer to this view asthe "banking system" of education.  This name describes the metaphor of teachers"depositing" knowledge into their student's heads.  Teachers would later "withdraw" this knowledge in the form of papers and tests.  Teachers assumed that the set of knowledge students needed to be taught would be passed down from generation togeneration without experiencing any changes (Aronowitz 4).  In Darwin's Dangerous Idea Daniel Dennett introduces the idea of a "brain as a sort of dungheap in which thelarvae of other people's ideas renew themselves, before sending out copies ofthemselves in an informational diaspora (346).  Dennett's description seems to be just another metaphor for the banking system of education. The idea that our brains do not change the knowledge we are taught.  Both views portray our brains not as creators of new knowledge, but as mechanisms meant to perpetuate already established knowledge.  Educators with this view of knowledge certainly still exist;however, new ideas about the nature of knowledge have emerged, especially overthe past century.

     Dennett expresses discontent with this view of knowledge.  Dennett states that he does not like this idea because "It does seem to rob my mind of its importance as both author andcritic" (346).  Thinking andlearning can seem pointless if our brains are destined to simply reproduce past knowledge.  However, Dennettcommits less than two pages of his book to this issue and fails to address the concerns it raises.  If our brainssimply reproduce knowledge, where did this knowledge originate?  If Dennett is uncomfortable with thisview of knowledge, what are some other possibilities?

     Many educational theorists have gone into this topic in considerably more depth than Dennett.  Many educators point out that differences in each student's experiences and personalities cause them to learn different things, even when they are sitting next to each other in the same class.  In their essay titled "Revisiting the Struggle for Integration," Michelle Fine and Bernadette Anand give concrete examples of the drastically different conclusions two students could make from a single experience.  The essay describes a middle school project in which the students conducted and compiled interviews about the integration of their town's schools in the 1960s.  The essay contains many instances of students interpreting the interviews in different ways.  One notable case is when the students were asked to reflect on the differences between the interviews: "A white girl responded, 'It was harder for whitepeople to be involved in the protests because they lost friends.' At the same moment an African American boy responded, 'White people who were involved tookall the credit.'" (91).  These two children heard the same interviews, however, their different life experiences led them to drastically different conclusions.  Although the project is designed tohelp students draw their own conclusions and make their own discoveries, the same phenomenon could occur in a more traditional classroom.  A student's mind interprets what ithears.  Different students arebound to interpret different experiences differently, no matter how "objective" the subject may seem. 

     Ideas do change when they are transferred between people.  Each person's experiences and identity greatly affect how they view and interpret the world. However, ideas come from somewhere.  Each person takes in various experiences and ideas and changes them.  Usually the ideas do not change drastically, but enough to create something new.  Ideas evolve through generations as well as through smaller groups such as schools and families.  Interestingly, a parallel metaphor for evolution is the changing views on knowledge and how teachers should helpfuture generations become knowledgeable. Should teachers expect all students to learn the same material or should teachers let each student create their own knowledge?  This question is still being debated today.  Dennett declined to weigh in on the origin and future of the knowledge he sees reproducing itself in his brain.  However, teachers have long debated the issue, creating changes in the accepted views that can be seen asan evolutionary process in themselves.

Works Cited

Aronowitz, Stanley. Introduction. Pedagogy of Freedom:Ethics, Democracy and Civic

Courage.  ByPaulo Freire. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1998. 1-19.

Dennett, Daniel. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Simonand Schuster Paperbacks,


Fine, Michelle and Bernadette Anand. "Revisiting theStruggle for Integration."

Controversiesin the Classroom: A Radical Teacher Reader. Ed. Joseph Entin, Robert C Rosenand Leonard Vogt. New York: Teachers College Press, 2008.  85-95


Anne Dalke's picture

emergent pedagogy

I’m so glad to see-and-hear you think through the implications, for educational theory, of the evolutionary ideas we are exploring in this class, as well as the reverse: the implications, for evolution, of the educational ideas you are exploring elsewhere on campus this semester. I appreciate, in particular, your recognition that the field of educational theory is itself evolving.

Also very striking to me is the connection you saw between the banking method and Dennett’s image of “the brain as a sort of dungheap”; I hadn’t quite realized, before reading your paper, how unchanging the view of human nature is in the banking method.

You start your paper by asking (among other questions),”where does knowledge come from?” and you end it by saying (among other statements) that “ideas come from somewhere.” Have you shown us wherefrom?

You might be interested in reading amirbey’s paper, which is a personal testimony to the sorts of differences you trace. I’m also very much interested in theories of education, and have written a lot about them. Perhaps the article that is most relevant to thinking about an “evolutionary” form of education is one called “Emergent Pedagogy: Learning to Enjoy the Uncontrollable—and Make it Productive.” If you’re interested, see

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