This is another post on my views on the EdTechTalk discussion (audio here and transcript here) recently between Stephen Downes and George Seimens about (among other things) views on objective and subjective knowledge and its impact on teaching (transfer of knowledge vs. connective learning). See this post for many more details and transcripts etc.
To continue my critique of Stephen’s view that there is no objective knowledge, I believe that objective knowledge does exist in some situations, but that often the domain of what is considered objective knowledge is extended too widely and encompasses too many things. It can, like many things, be misused and abused. For example, it is easier for a teacher to portray something as objective and not have to research or explain caveats or varying opinions. And of course, many politicians who care more about themselves than the good of their constituency would far prefer their views to be regarded as objective facts.
I believe it is an inescapable fact that 1+1=2 is objective and that sure, later on, students can learn about other perspectives like base 2, base 8 and non-Euclidian geometry etc, but these perspectives do not make 1+1 subjective, they are simply more detailed levels of knowledge that the student will be taught later, after they have grasped the fundamentals. Initially, there is a lot of value in a student understanding, becoming proficient with, and building upon simple, reliable concepts. There is value in them being easy to understand, easier to become proficient, and possibly most importantly, increased confidence in their knowledge and abilities.
This is essentially the foundation of Direct Instruction (DI) – a structured transmission, clarification, verification and practice of knowledge. The aim is to make students very proficient at the fundamentals so that their confidence is boosted, they stay excited about learning and that when they can focus on new, complex concepts, without getting distracted by slow, unsure fundamentals. A relative of mine has studied DI in great depth and compared it to a wide variety of other techniques. He has found that many solid studies show that students using DI far outperform students for pretty much any other technique and can help struggling students advance 2 to 3 year levels in a single year. What I found most interesting was that this technique does not continue exclusively – eventually the student proceeds to open, inquiry based learning, where a healthy view on subjectivism becomes important.
So it would seem that a healthy combination of structured transfer of knowledge (related to objective knowledge) and demonstration/interaction/inquiry (related to subjective knowledge) is not only possible, but highly effective. So while Stephen makes a simple, elegant case that objective knowledge does not exist, and that considering any knowledge to be objective creates bad teaching practices, I would suggest that objective knowledge does exist, and that if handled responsibly, it can have powerful positive impacts, and possibly even contribute to connective learning.