Illusion of knowing…

I am off to Vancouver on Wednesday to present a paper entitled the illusion of knowing.

The paper was written some time ago and  the central point is that the education system is predicated on a robust forms of knowing and accurate decision making when it appears this is far from true.

However rather than ackwlodge this, the whole school system and social structures from government to pupil operate through  a series of often implicitly negotiated illusions through rules, routines and sanctions. Indeed, in writing the paper, I was aware (at least I think I am) of my own compliance, coercion and collusion within the rituals of a conference submission and presentation. Such collusions represent a continuum of collusion and it is the successful navigation through such a continuum that represents achievement in many aspects of education.

The paper goes on to make several other points but in digging around I came across  Jacob Bronowski’s work again which I hadn’t read for some time. In terms of my thinking for this paper one particualr quote resonates with the concept of illusions and it comes from the Ascent of Man television series (1973) when Bronowski is standing in a small pool of water at Auschwitz,  and says, “Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And it was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance …” then slowly walks into the water with his shoes on, saying, “We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power”.

The illusion of knowing proposes a way forward through reconising the state of unknowing and links to Wittgenstein’s: What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence (1922).

Zembylas (2005) has stated that unknowing presents a curious element of redemption; in the lack of knowledge, the meaning of its absence is found. As such it is an ethical responsibility of all educators to acknowledge the position of unknowing.Therefore a pedagogy of unknowing embraces reflection, otherness, listening (not just hearing) and uncertainty. Such a pedagogy challenges the power-based relationships which dominate western education systems and questions assumptions about the goals of education, whilst challenging the notion of epistemic certainty (Ennis, 1972).

Pragmatists may scratch their heads in the consideration of such propositions, yet starting with a deficit model of vulnerable thinking and engaging with the challenging of boundaries of conventional thinking should be central to the aim of education. As a consequence, teachers should not seek to ease learner transitions across boundaries, through promotions of illusions and coercion, as the engagement of pedagogies of discomfort is of greater value than the illusions of accomplishment that are proliferated through current models of achievement.


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