Textbooks and Knowledge3

Textbooks, Information and Knowledge

What I have been trying to say is that; one, there is a difference between information and knowledge. And two, that information cannot be fully represented in the textbook and knowledge cannot be represented at all. Information can be represented through certain kinds of notions of which I can make sense. Knowledge can only be hinted at. And I will come to another thing – what else textbooks can have. Therefore, textbooks are certainly not repositories, either of information or of knowledge. But they are still useful things.      

Now I will come to textbook and in that we will use these notions.

What do we mean by textbooks? And that is why I asked this question yesterday of Anjali – because if I take her definition of textbooks then my little presentation will be in crisis. I wanted to save textbooks and therefore I am including certain other things in its definition. I am saying that any text which is considered necessary for all the people who want a particular education and qualification and which is more or less fixed; and which has to be mastered in a certain sense – to me, that is a textbook. That might be a card, that might be Ashtodhyaya mugged up in my own mind, that might be (the) Rigveda, that might be anything. And that thing should be considered necessary to achieve the educational aims. That, to me, is the textbook.

But if you don’t like the term textbook, let us simply call it text. I will argue that it is actually a textbook; but at this moment, I am ready to make that compromise. So we can call it text.

Now, it seems to me that the textbook so far – in human history – has been of three kinds. Other kinds may develop later but so far we have three kinds.

  • Composed purely of sound patterns, that is, something like Ashtodhyaya – something which is mugged up
  • Made of paper with marks on it, and with pictures on it.
  • And these days, perhaps, they may be digitized – in which you have marks, but you also have something that you can click and there will be a video or something would be spoken etc. – all the media coming together.

I can imagine only these three kinds of texts which could be used in education at this moment. And I don’t think any of them can fill the gap between representation and the actual information in the human mind; or representation and knowledge. Therefore I am saying that in whatever manner you design a textbook, it is impossible to bridge this gap. And I believe that this is a good thing – the fact that it is impossible to bridge this gap – because this is where the variety of interpretation and human autonomy starts functioning.

But there is another issue here. How do children make sense of a textbook? They have to be helped on their way of making sense of the textbook by other humans who already have these kinds of structures (something like the L1-Ln model we spoke about earlier) in their minds. Therefore, when we talk of constructing knowledge, it is impossible to do it alone. It is impossible for a child to construct knowledge completely on her own – without certain kinds of equipment and certain ways of looking at the world, and making symbols and dealing with symbols. Such training is essential. If a child is left alone to develop these capabilities, perhaps the child will take forever. So knowledge doesn’t seem to be possible without interaction with other human beings who already, up to a certain extent, have progressed in this business. And therefore, limitations on constructing my own knowledge – what kind of knowledge that is going to be – are pretty severe. And that knowledge also has to pass certain criteria.

I already talked about three criteria for knowledge – one, that I have to believe it; two, that it has to be true (truth is another problem that I am not touching at this moment, but it has to be true) and I have to have some sort of justification. Now, anything that I think I am justified in believing does not become a justification. Justification has to be public in nature. So if I believe that the moon goes around the earth, and I have a justification, then I have the epistemic responsibility to put that justification in front of you. And I have to – we may disagree – but I have to provide reasons for it. I have to provide grounds for my justification.

So justification is not something which is individual in my own head. Justification is a public idea. In this sense, it seems to me that textbooks do not represent knowledge. What do they represent, then? As I said, at present, textbooks represent – in a certain symbolic form – information. Information is not contained in the textbook. But certain coded symbols are contained within the textbooks. And when my mind interacts with these, it can extract that information.

So that is one gap. This gap can be filled only by the teacher in the beginning. I am focusing on primary and upper primary. At that level, a mediator is needed to help me make sense of that textbook. The nature of the textbooks and use of the texts changes when we go to secondary and university levels.

Now, there is a second element which textbooks could have; and that is, textbooks can represent processes to be followed by a child – together with other children – which can help her construct knowledge. All that textbooks can do is (i) represent information up to a certain extent; and (ii) represent processes which, if followed leads to a higher possibility of knowledge being formed in the children’s and teachers’ minds. That is why I was saying that rather than being seen as a repository of knowledge or information, the textbook perhaps is best seen as a pedagogical tool – one of the pedagogical tools – which can give us a direction on what to do with our time, and with others; and with other material and with the world, so that we arrive at knowledge.

And when I say arrive at knowledge, I do not mean exactly the same thing as constructing my own knowledge. My new knowledge, unless and until it is consistent within other knowledge in my mind, with my experiences in the physical world, and with human understanding represented by other people – is worthless. As a learning path, it might be very useful. But as an achievement, if these three kinds of consistencies are not in my knowledge, then it is not of much use.

What textbooks can do is to provide a road map of activities or ways of arriving at this knowledge; and up to a certain extent, represent in symbolic form, information which can be used. This is because you cannot arrive at knowledge unaided. Sometimes people say that information is not important. It is not needed. What is needed is knowledge. Let us realize that there is no knowledge unless and until there is information. There could be information and no knowledge. But the other way round – that you can have knowledge without having information – is not possible. Therefore, when we are talking of knowledge, we cannot say that information is not needed. You can perhaps say that so much information is not needed. But without information, knowledge is impossible.

Now, coming to my last point – on what grounds then should we assess or evaluate textbooks? If we take this route of understanding textbooks then one good criterion of evaluating textbooks could be – how good are its ways of indicating how to form knowledge? That is one important area. The others are the veracity of the information represented, and obviously, the adequacy of the represented information. The quality/type of representation is a part of these criteria to my mind. Perhaps these are the criteria on which we should start thinking about evaluating and improving the textbooks. I have not seen the textbooks published in the last one year but I am reasonable familiar with the textbooks published earlier – and it seems to me, from this point of view, they still have a long way to go.

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