The Structure of Knowledge

In this article a single simple concept will be articulated. With an accurate understanding of this concept, any form of education is possible. If this concept is properly understood and utilised, one could bring a child of no knowledge of the world to be a highly intelligent and erudite adult.

This is in regards to the structure of knowledge, or how the foundation of knowing nothing is built into towers of knowledge.

It’s like a big brick wall

A great analogy to use is that of a building, or a brick wall. This brick wall can be infinitely wide, and infinitely high. In this sense we have introduced two concepts of the acquisition and structure of knowledge, that is, it has at least two different dimensions: width and height. These two could be thought of as the two most fundamental directions of knowledge, upwards (specialisation) and sideways (broadening, generalisation).

Perhaps there is no limit to knowledge and truth. Even the world leading experts in certain areas are still learning. Hence the height and width of this “wall of knowledge” are infinite.

Like any wall, bricks are laid on top of previously laid bricks, and those previously laid bricks form the solid foundation for additional bricks to stand, that brings us to the most critical part of the structure of knowledge, namely, the premise.

The Premise

The word “Premise” is a relevant and significant word in this discussion, so it deserves careful definition. A premise is a noun which means “A statement that is assumed to be true and from which a conclusion can be drawn” or “an assumption made beforehand” — in the context of this article, referring to the structure of knowledge, it is “something assumed to be completely understood before any discussion or further education has occurred”

Often, I feel, the gap in education is so simply profound; the student at hand does not understand what is being taught, not because that concept or subject is intrinsically not clear or difficult, but because the premise in the mind of the learner is incomplete. Or in other words I believe one of the major reasons why people misunderstand teaching is simply because the building blocks below that particular “block” of knowledge are missing or incomplete. Something interesting is that most of the struggles of education are for this very reason, because if people understood the premise, the next “building block”, or the next piece of knowledge is not actually hard to place. Hence, often, the reiteration of the premise of a concept is an excellent introduction to the actual explanation of that concept.

How language fits into the premise

Language is the great medium of thought. It is the most fundamental tool of education and also the most basic premise. Without it there is no concrete or complex education.  In our analogy of a house, language can appropriately be thought of as the foundation, the premise of premises.  In many cases the process of understanding a concept is almost entirely composed of understanding the language that is used to articulate that concept.  In this way the acquisition of the “next” block of knowledge can be made a simple and easy process, that is, to understand the sentence that is used to describe a single thought. Thereafter all that is left is memorisation.

Examples of the “next block”

The learning of a new word

Here’s an example that illustrates the process of learning a new word through the understanding of a premise. In this case it is some other words with a similar but not exactly the same meaning.

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If you encountered the word “celerity” — but never knew what it meant before, you could look in the thesaurus and find similar words like “swiftness”, “speed”, or “rapidity”. Assuming you knew the definition of those words (the premise) with those words for your foundation, you could build the next block; namely an understanding of the word “celerity”

The learning of a physics concept

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In this example, the “next” block of knowledge is an understanding of what diffraction is. Diffraction carries many premises, before an attempt at understanding diffraction can be undertaken, a solid knowledge of the premises must be present. Concepts such as wavelength, phase difference and superposition are essential — and before wavelength can be understood, one needs to know what waves are, what speed is, displacement, etc. Before superposition can be understood, one needs to understand addition. With these concepts in place, a comprehensive understanding of diffraction can be pursued with satisfactory results. Questions can be asked to fill in the gaps in the premises and in the understanding of diffraction, and through asking questions the relationships between these varies concepts (the bricks) can be solidified.

A simple maths example

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This is quite a trivial example. A child cannot learn what multiplication is without first understanding what addition is and what repetition means, and that’s pretty much all they need to know. With those two premises in place, teaching a child that 5 X 5 is simply adding 5 to 0, five times, they can easily come to a knowledge of what it is.

The implications

Having a premise, and building on it — the structure of knowledge is that simple. If we can understand what this process entails, we could take anyone from any point of understanding to any other point of understanding. A child can become erudite. One step at a time, one brick at a time, we build our personal knowledge upwards and sideways.

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2 Responses

  1. Ian Chan says:

    Hey Shawn,
    I finally stumbled on your website and it is amazing! I have learned about schemas (knowledge structures or networks) but I have never looked at it like this before. I really enjoyed your analogy and a lot of the articles thus far. Thanks heaps!

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