How Do We Know?: Not Simple, Not Settled

In the early to mid-1980s, I entered the world of serious recreational cycling. I had been an athlete throughout my childhood and teen years, but found myself sedentary and out of shape in the first few years of my career as a high school English teacher.

Road cycling wasn’t the most inviting of sports, being both an individual and group endeavor. I quickly discovered, in fact, that cycling is deeply tradition-bound and steeped in ritual and conformity.

Ultimately, it is also an orchestra of Social Darwinism; you must be strong enough and skilled enough to ride with a group regardless of anything else (such as the right bicycle or the proper kit).

Early on, I had to focus on fitness—riding more often and longer, but always alone—and finding ways I could afford ever-better bicycles (see Rule 12). Gradually, I began shaving my legs and made the most daunting commitment facing me, using toe clips on my pedals.

Greg LeMond (L) strapped into the traditional toe clips along side Bernard Hinault (R) sporting the future, clipless pedals (a design inspired by ski bindings and pioneered by Look).

Toe clips were a must among serious cyclists, but they involved literally reaching down and tightening a leather or nylon strap around your feet. The monumental learning curve was reaching down to tighten the straps and always reaching down to flick the release when coming to a stop.

At the time, I lived only a couple miles from my bicycle shop so I rode my bicycle there to buy my first toe clips. They installed the clips to my pedals and went over how to tighten and release.

Filled with glee about my next step toward being a real cyclist, I rolled out of the shop parking lot and promptly came to a stop at a red light where I fell over fairly dramatically beside several cars—having completely forgotten to reach down to loosen the straps.

Just as I had to learn how to shift gears (old-school down-tube friction shifting), I learned to tighten and release the toe clips along with dozens of other behaviors necessary to ride in tight packs of cyclists at high intensity and to near exhaustion.

High-paced group cycling is a mix of many precise behaviors in incredibly tense contexts—from being dropped from the group to being in or causing a serious accident.

That was three decades ago, and today (after many changes to pedals and shifting) I function on a bicycle in ways that seem entirely natural, requiring essentially no thought.

Matching kits, clipless pedals.

Cycling for me is automatic behavior; I also have acquired an incredible amount of knowledge about bicycles (I do bicycle maintenance and build bicycles) and the history of the sport.

I often think of this journey in learning of mine, which was again prompted by a few exchanges on Twitter:

These comments about what we know and how we know it are common, but, I think, trapped in a misunderstanding about, for example, “rote memorization.”

Memorization and automatic behavior are not about “bad” or “good.” In fact, memorization and automatic behavior are inevitable for most humans, even essential.

The trap can be exposed by considering a behavior most of us have in common—assembling something from parts such as a TV stand or entertainment unit, or a children’s toy.

Do you recall opening the box, spreading out the parts, laying out the directions, and then beginning to assemble? Was there a moment (or several) while assembling when you turned from the directions to look on the box at the image of the fully assembled item?

So here is my point: The Twitter exchange above is trapped in viewing learning in a reductive way based on part-to-whole, easier-to-harder, sequential perceptions of learning.

This singular and reductive view is the trap.

Since most of the items we assemble are a one-time event, that assembly is both learning to assemble and assembling at the same time. (I once assembled a TV stand, badly, and then my in-laws wanted the same stand. The second assembly was a near-euphoric experience since I was able to apply what I had learned from doing the whole thing one time before.)

My journey in cycling and my assembly example here reveal that learning resulting in memorization and automatic behavior is extremely complex and is in fact an interplay between part and whole, not a step-by-step journey from part to whole.

“Breaking it down” is not always easier or clearer for some students, in some learning activities.

Many people learning to use toe straps, for example, would go into a grass field, strap in, and (as I did publicly) fall down repeatedly. Learning the real thing required doing the whole and real thing relatively badly until they improved (motivated by real consequences).

There is no debate, then, about the good or bad in memorization or automatic behavior. The real tension is about how and why we come to memorize or behave automatically.

Despite misleading claims that memorization is a foundation, we often come to know something, have it memorized, after (not before) we have rich and complex experiences with the knowledge or behavior.

In my doctoral program, I had to perform from memory in two intense settings—written comps and dissertation defense. I studied for neither because I had engaged with the material for so long and in such intense situations (course work, numerous papers, a full dissertation) that I had much of the material in recall.

Twenty-five-plus years later, much of that dissertation work remains in recall for me.

Like with cycling, my final doctoral work felt natural, as much a part of me as pedaling with my hands off the handlebars while I remove my cycling vest and stuff it into a rear pocket while sitting at the back of a high-paced group.

The quests for silver-bullets and simple step-by-step paths to learning and automatic behavior are at the core of many educational debates, in fact, including the incessant reading debate.

The complexity of cycling reminds me of the complexity in reading—the many interconnected behaviors and knowledge required to do both automatically and well.

Reading, learning to read, and teaching someone to read—like all learning—are not simple and how we come to know is just not settled.

In fact, learning will never be simple or settled because human beings are far too complex.

The paradox, of course, is that how we know is simple to explain: It is some type of interplay between doing the whole thing we want to learn and coming to know the many intricate parts that make up that whole thing.

How do we know?

It is a journey—not simple, not settled.