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!

Redefining Intelligence

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In the early 20th century, The Binet Test was created as a means of testing children with significantly below-average intelligence, but in the modern day it is better known as the IQ test. One of the lasting legacies of this test is the idea that linguistic and mathematical abilities are the essential components of intelligence- or in other words, that there is only one specific way of really being smart. A key purpose of social and emotional learning in the past century has been to challenge the ‘monopoly on intelligence’ held by traditional abstract intelligence. This conservative view supported the sociopolitical view of eugenists as a means of solidifying a class system based largely on educational opportunity and attainment. The psychologist E. L. Thorndike popularised the theory of multiple intelligence which allowed him to solidify his position in the nature versus nurture debate that was brewing on either side of the Atlantic. His theory was that knowledge comprises of abstract, mechanical and social intelligences – and was published in Harper’s Baazar in 1920. 

The monopoly on intelligence by abstract, rational thought extends beyond the 20th century. From Cartesian-based systems defining reason as Godly, to the Enlightenment debating the role of the individual to society, to the 19th century and its positivist science and nationalism, abstract intelligence as the main driver of reason has been privileged in most post-Enlightenment thinking. After World War II, this was challenged by the Frankfurt School- according to Theodor Adorno, reasoning created “abstract, coherent, architectonic systems’ (the main example being the Holocaust) and did not promote ‘subjective, private reflection.’ These insights allowed for humanistic psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, part of the affective education movement, to start emphasising the experiential parts of personality. Though such movements allowed for the advancement of social and emotional learning – and could be argued to have founded them – abstract intelligence still dominates the modern education system and its sense of educational accountability with its emphasis on basic academic skills, frameworks and – since the 1980s – international competition.

More recently, physics and computer science have begun to add to the definitions of intelligence, even creating an equation for intelligence, F = T ∇ Sτ. Intelligence being a force (F) that acts to maximise future freedom of action with some strength (T), with the diversity of possible accessible futures (S), up to some future time horizon (τ). 

As computer scientist and physicist Alex Wisnner-Gross describes it, intelligence tries to maximise future freedom of action and keep options open. With this definition of intelligence in mind, social and emotional learning can be respected as one of many components of a process that tries to maximise future freedom of action and void constraints in the future.

In Defense of Negative Emotion

What states of consciousness do we want to foster, cultivate and integrate into our societies?

According to the latest curricula in social and emotional learning – in the English-speaking world at least – the answer can be summed up in two words: emotional harmony. Achieving this state of consciousness is a matter of self-control, which can be boosted through practices such as mindfulness, meditation, yoga. In fact, meditation and mindfulness practices are now blossoming in schools.

The greatest testament to the popularity of emotional harmony is that it can be used synonymously with terms such as wellbeing, mental health and emotional intelligence. In other words, voicing negative emotion is showing a lack of control, lack of harmony, even lack of intelligence. Should this come as any surprise to a culture where reason has been privileged over emotion for centuries? The psychologist Daniel Goldman, who wrote the popular book ‘Emotional Intelligence’, sums it up in his treatment of anger, which he wrote as needing to be ‘defused’, ‘deflated’, ‘de-escalated’ and ‘cooled down’.

The fact is that it’s natural to have negative emotions. Anger and sadness are vital to the human experience. Under the ‘emotional harmony’ curriculum, if someone insults you or your loved ones, the right response is to cool your anger. To ‘un-attach’ yourself from your rage so as to respond reasonably and emotion-free. To count to 10. What utter bullshit. Modern neuroscience research shows that the emotion/reason dichotomy which the Enlightenment era got its thrills on was false: that is, that emotion is permeated by reason (and vice versa). As philosopher Michalinos Zembylas put it: anger and sadness – a negatively evaluating emotion – can in itself be the emotionally intelligent reaction to a certain state of affairs.

So what could possibly be the preferred state of consciousness if it isn’t emotional harmony, tranquillity, harmony and wholeness? Aristotle believed it to be emotional vigour, unencumbered by the self-imposed policing of reason. Religion believes it to be self-renunciation. Education and wellbeing policy states it to be harmony and happiness. And I guess that’s the point – if you’re not careful, the preferred state of consciousness will be decided for you, and imposed on you.

This is not to say that all SEL programmes subscribe to this idea- the Center of Emotional Intelligence, for instance, highlights that high-energy negative emotion can be used within school curricula for activities that require heightened awareness: debating or passionate expression promoting a cause. These are skills that are fundamental to a healthy democracy after all. The way in which Anglo governments are fervently promoting social and emotional learning as a means of achieving emotional harmony are extremely alarming for this reason alone – self-policing citizenry refusing to become angry? What a dream come true for the entrenched political elite!

The goal of social and emotional learning should not be about teaching us how to feel, but how to take care of ourselves. As Foucault concluded, the essence of education is to teach ‘care of the self’, “taking up the challenge of creatively and courageously authoring one’s ethical self.” Education is – and should always be – the freedom by which you become your own authority. Nothing more, nothing less.