BESMS: Knowledge as Tools (or, what do our students really need to learn in each course?)

During the course-mapping process, I tried to think critically about how our students interact with our curriculum. Like many disciplines, emergency and security management practitioners are a unique bunch in that they know theory but also can intuit useful ways to respond to situations. An example would be the decision to activate an Emergency Operations Centre (a facility used to colocate emergency management staff in order to better coordinate decision making and information sharing). A community may have an list of objective criteria that describe when an EOC should be activated; however, a practitioner would also have a subjective mental checklist that may differ. I want to ensure our students become practitioners that both know and understand these intricacies.

To get some perspectives on learning in general, Ron Bowles recommended I review the work of John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid in McLellan’s book Situated Learning Perspectives. In their chapter “Situtated Cognition and the Culture of Learning”, Brown, Duguid and Allan Collins identify a few concepts that resonated with me:

  • It may be more useful to consider conceptual knowledge, as, in some ways, similar to a set of tools. Tools share several significant features with knowledge: They can only be fully understood through use, and using them entails both changing the user’s view of the world and adopting the belief system of the culture in which they are used“. (Brown, Collins and Duguid, 1996, p.22)
  • People who use tools actively rather than just acquire them, by contrast, build an increasingly rich implicit understanding of the world in which they use the tools and of the tools themselves“. (Brown, Collins and Duguid, 1996, p.23)
  • Conceptual tools similarly reflect the cumulative wisdom of the culture in which they are used ad the insights and experience of individuals. (A)ppropriate use…is a function of the culture and the activities in which the concept has been developed“. (Brown, Collins and Duguid, 1996, p.23)

A bit of a mouthful but my interpretation is that there is value in having students see knowledge as being more than rote memorization (of course!). Instead, having students engage with curriculum in genuine experiences (which I’m currently defining as real-world or real-world based scenarios) allow the student to not only understand the application of knowledge but to “live” the culture of their discipline. Put differently, a student becomes encultured in the discipline when they engage and apply their knowledge

This viewpoint would also help weed out any practices that aren’t genuine (again, my definition). As Brown et al. state: “Many of the activities students undertake are simply not the activities of practitioners and would not make sense or be endorsed by the cultures to which they are attributed”. (Brown, Collins and Duguid, 1996, p.26) In this regard, if we focus students on the application of knowledge, knowledge that isn’t useful or applicable will be seen as redundant.

Still on the voyage of defining competencies – more on that soon!

Brown, J.S., Collins, A., and Duguid, P. (1996). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. In H. McLellan (Ed.), Situated learning perspectives (19-44). Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Educational Technology Publications.

Photo credit: Darren Blackburn