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Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Feb 27, 2012

Contribution to #Change11 online course, February 27.

The intent of these short contributions to the #Change11 course is to allow guest speakers to summarize their sum contribution to the field of online learning and new educational technology. Though I have recently become better known because of my contributions to connectivism and to the concept of the massive open online course, these are reflective of a wider philosophy that has characterized my work as a whole much more generally. In the early 2000s I took to characterizing it under the heading of knowledge, learning and community – I even posted an eBook with that title. I’d like to return to that framework in order to describe my contributions to the field today.

These three are intended to be represented as a cycle. Knowledge informs learning; what we learn informs community; and the community in turn creates knowledge. And the reverse: knowledge builds community, while community defines what is learned, and what is learned becomes knowledge. The three are aspects of what is essentially the same phenomenon, representations of communications and structures that are created by individuals interacting and exchanging experiences. So I have examined each of these three in detail, as well as the languages of communication between them, and as well as the experiences that inform them.


The traditional model of knowledge is what we may call propositional or representative: it consists of a series of signs, expressions, propositions or representations, which stand in relation to an external reality, or some subset of it, such that properties of that external reality are reflected in the expression. Knowledge, properly so-called, within such a framework consists of a set of such statements, models or propositions, the ability to manipulate them in order to create explanations, make predictions, or define concepts, and the ability to apply those to the world.

Theories of knowledge in this paradigm are based almost entirely on the properties of those signs, their origins, and how they are used to generate and preserve truth or meaning. Take for example what has come to be called the traditional definition of knowledge, “justified true belief,” and its counterexamples. Knowledge is through to be a statement or expression, like a belief. It is expected to correspond or correctly represent the world, and hence be true. And it presupposes a connection between that external world and the representation, which is a justification.

This model has served us well over the years; it is the foundation behind the scientific method, which consists of the creation of representations that enable predictions to be tested experimentally. It forms the foundation for logic and inference, which are the basis for being able to tell when a statement someone makes is true, or false.

But it is a fiction. Our knowledge is not actually composed of propositions and representations. As Wittgenstein has said, what we know is more accurately demonstrated in what we do, and language derives its meaning not from what it represents but by how we use it. The logical structures we think comprise ‘knowledge’ are but one part of a far more complex series of expressions, behaviours, interactions, manipulations, creations, emotions and more, all of which point to a much deeper structure. The words we use, the facts we describe, the principles and rules we infer – these are simple abstractions of what we really know.

The theory I have advanced (and I am by no means the only person to reason in this way) is that our knowledge is literally the set of connections between neurons in the brain (or between bits in a computer, or between people in a society, or between crickets in a forest). Our knowledge is the state of organization that results in our brains and bodies after our interactions with the world. For example, ‘to know that Paris is the capital of France’ is not to have some sentence in the brain, nor is it to be in possession of some fact, it is to be organized in a certain way.

This state of ‘being organized in a certain way’ is manifest in different ways. For an individual, to ‘know’ something is characterized by a feeling of recognition. How do we ‘know’ a person is Fred? We ‘recognize’ him. Subjectively, we feel we ‘know’ something when we can’t see the word differently; we see a tiger and can’t think of what we are seeing as a horse. We visit Paris and can’t make sense of the suggestion that we are not in the capital of France. We see ‘1+1’ and don’t have any way to make that into ‘3’. We perceive what we know through the actions of our own brains when presented with this or that situation.


To learn that ‘Paris is the capital of France’ involves far more than presentation and memory of the sentence or proposition that ‘Paris is the capital of France’. Our actual knowledge of ‘Paris is the capital of France’ consists of much more than the simple content contained in such a sentence; it involves not only a knowledge of the language and the conventions surrounding the language, but also the idea that ‘Paris’ is a city, that cities are the sorts of things that are capitals, and more, an entire set of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that would be appropriate of a person who knows such a thing.

To learn, therefore, that ‘Paris is the capital of France’, is to incorporate, not a simple physical state, but instead to instantiate a complex physical state, so complex it is beyond description. Indeed, we say ‘Fred knows X’ because we have no way of describing the physical state that constitutes ‘knowing X’. It is unique for each person, both physically (there is no necessary nor sufficient set of connections that consists ‘knowing X’) and conceptually (no two people mean exactly the same thing by ‘X’).

The challenge of pedagogy, indeed, is that learning is not simply remembering. If all that was needed was to enable a student to recite back a set of facts, pedagogy would be simple; as in archaic schools, we would simply have students recite the fact aloud until they could repeat it back without error. But we know that a person does not know ‘Paris is the capital of France’ even if he recites that fact should he turn around and book a flight to Marseilles to see the President.

To learn, therefore, even a simple fact (such as ‘Paris is the capital of France’) or as much as an entire discipline (Chemistry, Physics, economics) is to become like a person who already knows that fact or practices that discipline. Part of being ‘like’ a person who practices a discipline is agreement on the same set of facts, and answering the same questions in the same way. But it also involves seeing the world in the same way, recognizing some things as important and other things as not, in approaching problems in the same way, having the same standards of proof and reference, and more.

Historically, education has recognized this. The various tests and exercises we ask students to perform are efforts to replicate the major elements of practice undertaken by one who has already mastered the relevant domain. In science, we set up labs and ask students to perform ‘experiments’. In mathematics, we pose ‘problems’ and in more advanced classes as them to provide ‘proofs’. In carpentry students are asked to build bookshelves. We are seeking to replicate not simple representational states, but complex patterns of experience and performance.

The best way to replicate an expert’s organizational state is to be that person – to have the same DNA, the same physical environment, and the same experiences. None of this is possible; each person is physically, environmentally and experientially unique. But by exposing the student to some aspect of the expert’s environment and experience we can create something like the expert’s knowledge. And we can narrow in on this through communication, either directly or indirectly (though a teacher), about that experience. And we can develop a more concrete personal understanding by trying out our own understanding in this environment, creating new and unplanned experiences, which on reflection we can relate to our own unique experiences.

I have expressed my (very unoriginal) theory of pedagogy very simply: to teach is to model and demonstrate, to learn is to practice and reflect. Both teaching and learning consist of talking about and of doing. Theorizing and practicing. Abstracting and making concrete. Nothing new there, but what is key is the attitude we take as we understand that to learn is to emulate an entire organizational state and not merely to possess a simple set of facts.


The community is the place in which we have learning experiences, and the environment through which we communicate with each other about these experiences. It is at one moment the place where we learn and at another moment the instantiation, as an artifact, of what we have learned, as a society. It is at one moment the place where we communicate, and at another moment, an expression of what we have communicated.

A community is the totality of a society’s knowledge, and that knowledge is contained not only in its law courts and libraries, but also in its buildings and bridges, statues and artwork, community halls and schools and taverns, houses, apartments, and cardboard shelters built by people who live on the street.

A community is not the same as a brain – obviously – but we can talk about a community learning in the same way we can talk about a person learning. A community has experiences – whether an invasion or drought, earthquakes, political upheaval, stock market fluctuations, pollution, weather and all the other wider social and environmental phenomena that we as a society experience as a whole. These experiences imprint and shape the community as a whole – each person, working alone and with others, creates one or another aspect of community in response to these – builds houses to shelter against the storm, roads to travel to sources of food, art to express our anguish or joy.

As with a human, no simple words can express what a community knows; as with a human, what a community knows is reflected by what it does. You would say, for example, that a society as a whole does not ‘know’ about global warming, does not ‘comprehend’ it, if it takes no action in response to it; we individual members of a society may see the impact, but the pain of the experience has not yet been felt by the whole.

Whether a community can know, whether its experiences can be transformed into knowledge, depends on how the community is organized, on how it can be organized. Rocks do not learn as much as humans because they cannot be organized beyond simple alignments of their constituent molecules. Moreover, rocks cannot express this organization through present or future behaviour. The best rocks can do is to form a pile; humans, through their creative acts and interactions with each other, compose vastly more complex artifacts.

A community relates to its constituent members in several ways. In is the environment within which a person experiences, practices and learns. It is therefore a mechanism whereby the experiences of one person may be replicated by another, through immersion in the same environment. A factory isn’t simply a mechanism for building hammers; it is a mechanism whereby one member is able to show another how hammers are built (and how forges are used, and how labour is organized, and all the rest). A community is also the medium through which one person communicates with another. It create a thick network of connections, whether of wire, highway, text or acoustics, through which signals are sent and received.

We take great stock in the meaning expressed by these signals, in the state of affairs in the world these signals are intended to represent, but this focuses our attention artificially only on those signals, or those aspects of signals, that are designed explicitly to represent, and to disregard what is in fact the bulk of these communications. A person may intend only to say ‘Paris is the capital of France’, but a wealth of information is contained in that communication, in the language, the tone, the context, the attitude, and more. Not only is each expression an act, each act is also an expression, and our communications are far more than the simple words that express them.


As a result of my understanding of knowledge, learning and community I have a very broad concept of language, which to my mind the content of any communicative act from one entity to another. As such, to my mind, most language does not have ‘meaning’ as such – indeed, more accurately, no language inherently has meaning.

A language may be thought of as an entity in its own right, with its own internal form of organization, though arguably it is inseparable from the community that creates it. As such, while I would be hesitant to say that a language expresses knowledge, I feel comfortable in saying that a language contains knowledge. For example, the fundamental elements of written language – subjects and actions, objects, tenses and connections – are expressions of elements of our knowledge of the world. What (say) the English language says about us is that we see the world as something that progresses through time and space, and contains subjects and objects, which interact with each other. Other languages – music, say, or bricks – say other things about us.

What is crucial to understand about language is that it reflects, and does not prescribe. Put another way, the rules of language are not the rules of the world. Language follows learning and experience, is reflective of learning and experience, and does not constitute learning and experience. A sentence is like a picture: an abstraction, a snapshot, a moment, an artifice. It is not inherently true or false, does not inherently contain its own meaning. When we read, when we comprehend, a language, we do so by recognizing, and not by decoding.

Week 25 Activities

There will be two online sessions this week:

Wednesday February 29 at 12 noon Eastern (Check your time zone)

Wednesday: We will talk about the implications of the principles outlines in this introduction. In particular, we will describe the elements of language, the principles for effective communities, and the pedagogy of connectivism.

Friday March 2 at 12 noon eastern (Check your time zone)

Friday: We will receive and discuss your activities for this week. Participants will be asked to present their artifacts, as described below. Then we will discuss them from the perspective of the principles discussed on Wednesday.

Both sessions will be held here.

1. Create a learning artifact

Keep your learning artifact simple and to the point. For example, describe how to add two numbers. Describe how to use Mr. Potato-head. Describe the major cities of France.

2. Present your learning artifact

The simpler your artifact is, the easier this section will be. In the presentation of the artifact, consider explicitly the three major elements and how communication talks place throughout them:

- How does your learning artifact instantiate knowledge? And what is the knowledge the artifact represents? Focus not simply on the statement or expression of that knowledge, but also on the organization that constitutes a deeper and more complex knowledge.

- How does a student use your artifact to learn? In what way does the artifact replicate or emulate the experience and performance of a person who already has this knowledge?

- What is the community around that knowledge – is it a community of language speakers, or practitioners, of adherents of a faith? What would characterize the community – does it revolve around an object, set of beliefs, way of looking at the world? How does the community learn?

On Friday I will ask participants to present their knowledge artifacts. At that time, in addition to considering the three elements described here, I will consider the artifact in the light of the principles introduced and discussed on Wednesday.


Stephen Downes is a senior researcher for Canada's National Research Council and a leading proponent of the use of online media and services in education. As the author of the widely-read OLDaily online newsletter, Downes has earned international recognition for his leading-edge work in the field of online learning.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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