On Creating a Taxonomy of All Human Knowledge for HAHA Academy

When I started the quixotic journey to create a taxonomy of all human knowledge the most common (and well meaning) questions people asked me were: Why? What’s the point (you know Wikipedia exists right)? And the more obvious: Are you bonkers?

These are fair enough questions to ask. When we think of a taxonomy of all human knowledge we instantly think that we’ve been there and done that in the form of encyclopedias or the Dewey Decimal System. But I’m not interested in creating or remixing a reference resource- if it ain’t broke I ain’t fixing it (although we really need an open-source Dewey Decimal System, just sayin’). What does interest me is creating a taxonomy of human knowledge as a teaching resource: a ‘road map’ of every topic so that anyone that wants to can learn a specific subject in its entirety. And you can’t do that with an encyclopedia, be it on or offline. 

Why? For two reasons:

1. A knowledge taxonomy needs to differentiate between knowledge types

 

Encyclopedias have been designed, conceived and constructed as reference resources, not teaching resources.

One of the first attempts to categorise the sum of human knowledge was the tree of Diderot and d’Alembert with its three categories:  History, Philosophy, and Poetry. More recently, Wikipedia has 12 categories, Encyclopedia Britannica has 20 , the Dewey Decimal Classification system has 10, and the Library of Congress Classification Outline has 21. Some recent efforts to recategorise human knowledge,  Jose Sanchez-Cerezo de la Fuente‘s map for example,  has 15 sections and is shaped in the form of a globe (worth checking out!).

So what’s the problem? Well, none of the systems of categorisation mentioned above differentiate between  knowledge types. This is a problem because different knowledge types require different instructional strategies appropriate to each. In other words, encyclopedias are wonderful to reference knowledge, but not to teach knowledge. As Robert N. Carson (2004) demonstrates in his paper A Taxonomy of Knowledge Types for Use in Curriculum Design, the distinctions governing different types of knowledge are fundamental to good teaching:

Let us consider the following statements, all of which might be regarded as valid, or true, by at least some people. As you read them, consider why and in what sense each might be considered true:

“When placed in water, rocks sink.”
“This is the symbol for five: 5 ”
“Five plus five equals ten.”
“The word programme is spelled p-r-o-g-r-a-m-m-e.”
“Water boils at 212°, and freezes at 32°.”
“The Greeks in the time of Pericles discovered the standard for aesthetic beauty.”
“A circle has 360°.”
“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
“The angles of a triangle always add up to 180°.”
“If you mix yellow and red paint you get orange.”
“Two wrongs never make a right.”
“Earnest Hemingway was one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century.”
“In music, an A and an E will sound in harmony, but a C and a D will be discordant.”

All of these statements represent knowledge claims seen, by some at least, as valid. But if true, they are true for different reasons, and it makes a difference whether teachers and students understand this. While it may be possible to assert all of these statements as if they are solid, Platonic truths, it is poor practice to do so … the potential richness and depth of our teaching is dependent upon the extent to which distinctions between different kinds of knowledge are part of the conversation.”

Because HAHA Academy’s knowledge taxonomy is designed, conceived and constructed as a teaching resource, it thus takes into account the different types of knowledge which are so fundamental to good teaching. These include:

  • Rational Knowledge
  • Conventional Knowledge
  • Conceptual Knowledge
  • Cognitive Process Skills
  • Psychomotor Knowledge
  • Affective Knowledge
  • Narrative Knowledge
  • Received Knowledge

Each of these knowledge types highlight a different way in which knowledge is created, and effective teaching simulates this process:

“It made a difference whether the key transformation was taking place because of an act of reason, an act of keen observation, an experiment, an invention, the development of a new procedure, the advent of a new way of characterizing what was being looked at, and so forth. The way a given quanta of understanding enters the scene very often reveals the kind of knowledge it is, and, significantly, there are different kinds of knowledge. Each knowledge type, we concluded, could be taught in a way that mimics the way it came on the scene originally, and often that is the best way to teach it” (Carson, 2004, 74).

Of course, categorising subjects into what knowledge they belong to wasn’t easy as they are not mutually exclusive. As Carson admits himself, all these domains are intertwined. For this reason the HAHA taxonomy was built to specifically highlight ‘intertwined’ subjects and topics from various knowledge categories. This is why when you hover over a particular topic in the HAHA taxonomy, a different section ‘lights’ up from different knowledge types. Give it a try!

And if you find related subjects that are not currently highlighted in the taxonomy, we’d very much appreciate it if you add them to the HAHA Academy wiki.

2) A knowledge taxonomy needs a course of study for each topic.

 

Another difference between a knowledge taxonomy used as a reference resource compared to one used for teaching, is that the former cannot provide you a road map to learning the fundamentals of a particular subject. What does it mean to know physics? Or World War II? Or poetry? What fundamentals do you need to understand (and be able to apply) to master a subject?

In 1974, the 15th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica sought to resolve this issue with the publication of the Propaedia: a separate volume which was to replace the Index, and function instead as an outline of knowledge. But in its attempt to be all things to all men, the Encyclopedia Britannica misjudged its primary function as a reference resource. The kickback was so bad that the Propaedia was scrapped and the 15th edition had to be completely re-organised and indexed for a re-release.

This is why HAHA Academy has attempted to crowdsource a course of study for each subject . By incorporating different types of knowledge, HAHA Academy also includes a course of study for different skills which haven’t been emphasised in encyclopedias to date: be they cognitive, affective or psychomotor skills. This is a huge undertaking. HAHA Academy, like Wikipedia, relies on crowd-sourcing content, so if you can add anything to the existing taxonomy, please do! To contribute to the ‘road map’ for your subject please click here.

I will discuss the process of creating ‘road maps’ for knowledge in the next post. I’m a comparative education scholar specialising in social and emotional education, and as part of HAHA Academy’s Affective Knowledge category I created a taxonomy of social and emotional aptitudes. This process involved over 750 teachers from four different countries – the first hivemind taxonomy for social and emotional skills to date.  More on that soon!

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