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On the act of constructing knowledge: A framework toward critical pedagogy

In order to explain the act of constructing knowledge, two dimensions of this process will have to be taken into account. These are the social and the individual bases of knowledge.

The social basis of knowledge
The concept of social basis of knowledge implies that knowledge is produced and understood in relation to what is already known rather than in relation to how things are. This is a very important distinction. It suggests a distance between our perceptions of how things are and how things actually are. 

Now, since we can produce and understand knowledge only in relation to what we already know, this implies that what we know reflects more information about us and not about anything else. For example, at school we do not study what appears to be a planetary organisation of our solar system. Rather, we study what we have come to perceive as a planetary system. There is nothing binding about the concept of a planetary system. We can always change the way we view our universe. 

We can conclude therefore that nothing that we know is independent of us. We know what we created and what works to us as knowledge. 

Critical thinking and the social basis of knowledge
Since our knowledge is constructed in relation to what we already know, the process of gaining knowledge does not rely on collecting more data! This is another crucial point. Gaining knowledge is not a process of accumulating more and more.  Instead, gaining knowledge can be accomplished only in a process of reflection upon ourselves i.e. reflection upon the ways of thinking that constrain us in the process of progressing forward. 

This brings us to the next conclusion: We do not construct knowledge continuously. We do so only when we experience problems i.e. when we feel that we cannot move forward, progress. We can say that we do not construct knowledge unless we are challenged to do so i.e. unless what we know so far does not seem to be enough to solve problems that we experience. Constructing knowledge therefore happens as a result of experiencing problems or a failure. It is not a process that we do continuously. We can say that we construct knowledge only when we are forced to do so in the face of problems that we experience.

The individual basis of knowledge
Although the process of constructing knowledge happens in relation to what we already know, the society does not constructs knowledge as one unit. It is individuals that do this. Individuals do so in relation to what they happen to have understood in the course of their lives. 

Knowledge therefore are not statements that reflect impersonal sets of beliefs. Furthermore, with knowledge being personal, or individually appropriated, even the beliefs or understandings that appear to be shared by more than one person are never the same beliefs! This is so because none of these beliefs is constructed in relation to the same sets of understandings. Individuals differ in terms of what they know at any given time.    

We can conclude therefore that no single person shares with another single person the same beliefs or understandings. As a result, knowledge can never be treated as static set of beliefs. Rather knowledge emerges here as a dynamic entity, a product of interaction between individuals (or individuals’ histories) and specific problems in relation to which it has been generated.

Critical pedagogy and the individual basis of knowledge
From the points above it follows that more knowledge is created only when individuals are given the possibility to affect their future. They are given this possibility only when future depends on the kinds of understandings that they bring with them in the process of its shaping. On the other hand, they are denied this possibility when future is deferred from the learning process. Strategies of such a deferral are common in educational institutions. They are usually sold to students under the excuse that one day they will need whatever knowledge they are taught. Whether that “one day” ever comes is not the issue. The issue is that students are not learning but are forced to repeat texts in order to satisfy whatever the institutional demands there may be in schools.  

How to enable students in our teaching environments to study or gain knowledge by a process that respects their past and hence makes learning depend on their past, has been described by Ania Lian in article On the concept of experiencing freedom. 
The article mentioned and the arguments laid out in here point to the following principles have as foundational to any educational approach:

(a) We cannot escape history; we are history.
(b) We can generate more history only in relation to our individual histories i.e. in relation to what we already know and understand as individuals. 
(c) To create more history, individuals need to be given possibility to confront their own histories and to reflect upon the ways in which their understandings act more as constraining rather than enabling.
(d) New knowledge emerges when students cannot rely on what they know. Only then they are forced to evaluate and create new links. As a result, they create more knowledge; they learn. 
To conclude the concept of challenge emerges as the sole trigger for learning. We can learn only when unable to deal with challenges. Only then we seek more information, more clues that would help us build on those challenges and resolve them in a constructive, informed way. 

Ania Lian, 2002

Copyright © Ania Lian 2002