Review of: Gilbert, J. (2005) Catching the Knowledge Wave: the Knowledge Society and the Future of Education Wellington, NZ: New Zealand Council for Educational Research Not available online. To order, go to: http://www.nzcer.org.nz/default.php?products_id=1215
This book argues that ‘the term “knowledge society” is a kind of shorthand for a completely new set of ideas about knowledge – what it is, how it develops, how it is used, what it is for, and who owns it.’ (p.3). The book itself is not directly about technology, but it does argue that ‘educational institutions must change much of what they do if they are to meet the challenges of a knowledge society’.
First, a word about Jane Gilbert, as many will not be familiar with this New Zealand author. Currently a researcher with the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, she is by background a secondary (high) school science teacher, and then a university lecturer in educational sociology and philosophy. This background is important in understanding her arguments. She is primarily concerned about the changes needed in schools, although I think her arguments apply just as well to post-secondary institutions.
The book is organised around seven chapters. Chapter 1, ‘Schools, Knowledge and the Future‘, is an introduction in which it is argued that we are currently in the midst of a major social and intellectual revolution: ‘new and very different ways of thinking are challenging and replacing long-standing and highly significant ways of thinking’ (p.10). However, she believes that most people in politics, business and education do not fully understand how the nature of knowledge is changing, and consequently have not yet come to grips with the policy and organizational implications of these changes.
Chapter 2, ‘The Knowledge Society‘ looks at how and why the meaning of ‘knowledge’ is changing. She argues that knowledge-based societies are those ‘in which people see knowledge in economic terms, as the primary source of all future economic growth’ (p. 25). However, this knowledge for economic purposes is fundamentally different than knowledge for academic purposes, she argues. Economic knowledge is using knowledge to ‘do’ things; academic knowledge is about understanding and explanation. Economic knowledge’s value is determined by what it accomplishes in terms of economic activity; the value of academic knowledge is determined above all by its appropriation and protection by a dominant, elite minority. She argues that in effect, academic knowledge has been used as a filter for determining who should join the elite.
Chapter 3, ‘Schools of thought: where did our current education system come from?’ expands on the concept of public education as a tool to provide an industrial society with the labour, skills and managers that is needed by industry. She draws particular attention to the way the school system has divided education into academic and vocational streams, without resolving the tension between ‘selection by ability’ and equal opportunities for all.
Chapter 4, ‘Where to from here? New ways of thinking about knowledge and learning‘, is the heart of the book. In this chapter, Gilbert discusses models of knowledge, the old model, knowledge as ‘stuff’, and the new model, knowledge as action or ‘doing’: ‘the shift in emphasis from knowledge to knowing is important. Knowing is a process, while knowledge is a thing.’ (p. 77). She places particular emphasis on education as problem-solving and on education as the construction of knowledge by the learner.
Chapter 5, ‘Renewing social democracy: being equal and different‘ explores the concept of individuality and its relationship to knowledge. ‘The chapter’s key message is that it is no longer appropriate to have an education system premised on a one-size-fits-all model of individuality. For important economic and social reasons, a post-modern education system has to make possible multiple ways of being. However, this does not mean that anything goes and/or that nothing matters.’ (p. 100). In this chapter, Gilbert specifically addresses the use of ICTs to develop multiple forms of personal identity, but criticises schools for their the lack of innovation and above all the failure to use digital information and communications to promote the ‘new’ concept of knowledge.
Chapter 6, ‘Does knowledge matter?‘ In this chapter, Gilbert argues for a new theory of knowledge ‘that can help us decide whether knowledge matters in the schools of the future and, if it does, what forms of knowledge matter and how best to develop them.’ (p.148). In this chapter, she makes the case that although learning skills are seen as a way to foster the management and application of the new forms of knowledge, the focus on just learning skills is not sufficient, because what is learned still remains as important as how it is learned. What Gilbert is looking for though is not a return to the old discipline-based approach to knowledge, but a ‘third way’ that values both academic and applied knowledge. She concludes with describing two approaches that she feels can do this: narrative-based approaches and critical literacy.
Chapter 7, ‘Yeah, right, but what are we going to do tomorrow?‘ provides a number of pragmatic suggestions as to what teachers can do to prepare their students for life in a knowledge-based society.
The first thing I would like to say about this book is that it is very well written. It is extremely clear, and is particular good at explaining post-modernist thinking about knowledge and individuality. The brief chapter summaries above do not do justice to the richness and the complexity of Gilbert’s arguments, which are well supported by notes and further readings. The book provides a strong critique of the weaknesses of current education systems, which I believe apply to many systems besides the New Zealand one. The book deals with some of the key questions and ideas about how the nature of knowledge is changing in a globalised, information technology based world, and the implications for education systems.
However, it is one of those books that really inspires you at the time of reading, but which over time causes you to have second thoughts or doubts about the message. In particular, I have a problem with the division she makes between academic and applied knowledge. Although academic knowledge may have had higher value in the past than applied knowledge within education, universities for instance have always been very focused on professional schools such as medicine, engineering, and agriculture. The psychologist, Kurt Lewin, once said, ‘There’s nothing as practical as a good theory.’ Pure research often leads to breakthroughs in applied science, so the distinction is not helpful. It would have been better to have focused on more specific examples of how ‘non-academic’ knowledge, such as multiple but essentially minor improvements on performance by many working individuals all seeking to ‘do the job better’ lead to significant change over time. This is one form of ‘knowledge’ that is different from academic knowledge, although academic knowledge may still be relevant as well. Also, there is no recognition that the importance of academic knowledge is actually increasing in applied fields. In Canada, for instance, those wishing to apprentice in car mechanics need to have a relatively advanced level of mathematics (high school completion), which Gilbert sees as being ‘academic’ knowledge.
The really weak part of the book is in fact the guidance for teachers. Narrative-based teaching and critical literacy have their value, but these methods will by no means meet the requirements of developing problem-solving skills in engineering or medicine, for example. I was disappointed that Gilbert, as a former science teacher, did not emphasise more the challenge to science and rationalism that new forms of knowledge raise, and the dangers in this. The underlying importance of ICTs in affecting the very nature of knowledge is touched upon, and the importance of encouraging learning through a variety of digital media is recognised. However, she does not deal concretely with the way digital information and communication change the nature of knowledge, and hence the importance of embedding ICTs within the curriculum in ways that enable teachers to develop the new kinds of knowledge, or ways of knowing, now required in many knowledge-based occupations, for example, by enabling learners to find, analyse, organise and apply information in whatever field of study.
Nevertheless, like the ‘Tower and the Cloud’, this is also an ‘ideas’ book, one that offers a radical critique of the current education system, and asks penetrating questions about the nature of a knowledge-based society. It combines a concern with equality and serving all learners with ideas about how to improve the quality of education. Above all, she is searching for ways to make education more relevant to the needs of a knowledge-based society. The reader will still have to do some work in interpreting the message of this book in ways that will lead to pragmatic action in teaching and learning, but ironically the book itself is an excellent example of the value of academic knowledge for applied learning, in that it forces us to think more deeply about what we are doing and why.