I continue to grapple with definitions of information, knowledge, learning, and meaning. The more I read and seek clarification, the more murky my views. I’m now at the stage where I’m starting to define knowing simple as “being aware of an object/idea in a current context”. Tomorrow, the object/idea may be in a different context, and that will influence knowledge. It follows that a large part of knowledge is derived from the context or view of an idea/concept/object. Does a concept then have no intrinsic meaning? For example, I come from a pacifist faith and methodology (a concept constantly challenged in today’s world). Is non-violence always “true”? Or, if one holds to another view – is conflict or violence always the “final answer”? What does this say about concepts or ideas that we use to shape and form society? Is it relative? If so, does it then mean that our own morality is shaped by context? Can we reach “shared understandings” when knowledge is seen primarily as a function of subjective interpretation or perspective?
In the past, I’ve defined the debate of information, knowledge, meaning, and learning as being one of progressively greater intelligence applied in moving up the scale. Information (defined as data with some organizing scheme applied) is the starting point. Knowledge is an understanding or comprehension of information’s explicit and tacit domains (i.e. information in context and internalized). Meaning is the highest element in the pyramid. Meaning is an understanding or recognition of the impact of knowledge. The Dow Jones daily performance is information. Understanding why Dow Jones rose/fell is knowledge. Comprehending the impact of Dow Jones’ daily performance is a function of meaning. What does it mean? Who will be impacted? How does it affect my retirement goals? How does it reflect on national competitiveness? How does this “meaning” link to other forms of knowledge I possess (globalization, government taxation, principles of governing party)?
To see it another way, learning (which is comprised of many domains), at its highest level, is the moment at which knowledge translates to meaning. Unfortunately, we use “learning” as a vague and confusing term. Sometimes we define learning as acquiring a new skill (loading a software program). Other times we define it as an ongoing, informal experience (self-reflection). Or we define learning as a by-product of personal experiences…etc. We use the term “learning” to refer to filling knowledge gaps, increasing personal and organizational competence, increasing self-awareness, and on and on. Few words are more eviscerated of concise meaning than learning. However, if we tentatively view learning as the act of transforming knowledge into meaning (which then suggests that we can do something with (or actuate) knowledge), we can begin to tackle the challenge of perspective or subjectivity.
It seems to me that certain things are innate or certain entities possess intrinsic attributes. Perspective and subjectivity have value only to the degree that they align with these intrinsic values. A simple example: the concept of “forgiveness” is gaining much favor and attention in the field of psychology. It is generally understood that forgiving others who have wronged us is an excellent way of maintaining our own mental health. Forgiveness can be seen as an objective concept (I know I’m walking into very murky waters that require much more contextual information than I’m providing in this short example). A person can have knowledge of the value of forgiveness. Subjectivity comes in how we assign meaning to what we know (or to what might be an existing objective concept). How we personally approach forgiveness is the starting point of personal subjectivity. Context, cognition, and emotion all contribute to how we assign meaning to knowledge. The process is one of degrees, not a “yes” or “no” experience.
This is a simple thought experiment, but it does provide a basis for thinking objectively about the notion of learning and knowledge. I’m comfortable stating that everything we see/do is personally interpreted. In many cases, however, an objective concept exists as a tempering point for assigning value to my subjectivity.
This isn’t to say that all aspects of life are clearly objective or that subjectivity is always a function of assigning meaning to objective entities. Far from it. Many aspects of life, behaviour, knowledge, and learning are subjective. However, I don’t want the presence of subjectivity to exclude the possibility of objective dimensions to our learning and meaning-making.
How we assign meaning to knowledge, or how we design learning for our learners, is derived from our own conceptions of subjectivity and objectivity. The rapid development of information, the continual march of change, and global developments and conflict, are powerful illustrations of the substantial challenge facing educators. I fear that we pull the foundation out from our learners when we don’t provide at least the acknowledgement (possibility) of objective reality. Rapid change does not speak against objectivity. The higher pursuit, in today’s learning spaces, should be the creation of holistic, integrated modes of thinking, knowledge, learning and meaning. We all shape our realities. We all explore and see different parts of the aspects of life that are objective. We all contribute (connected individualism) to the aggregated whole of subjective view points leading to a more complete view of what is and what can be.