Does withholding knowledge stimulate or stunt learning?

Does refusing to share knowledge truly stimulate learning? I love to learn new things, and am constantly on some mission of discovery.  Over the years, I have tried to share my enthusiasm for learning with my students, and anyone else who will allow me to indulge my love of learning.  I have just as eagerly shared what I have learned as I have shared my enthusiasm for learning.  One of my greatest thrills as a teacher is to see curiosity light up the eyes of a student, and watch them begin their own journey of discovery. I don’t believe we are ever too old to learn new things.  I do believe that as soon as we choose to give up the quest for knowledge and understanding we limit our relevance to society.

Earlier today, I interacted with an intelligent, interesting individual who often writes some thought-provoking articles.  A recent article of his stimulated some study on my part and raised some questions, so I addressed those questions to the author, in the hope that he would help me understand his thought process better.  He responded in a rather unexpected way.  He indicated that he did indeed have the answers to my questions, but felt that sharing what he knew would discourage me from thinking independently and stunt my ability to aquire or generate knowledge.  If he answered my questions, that would somehow make him guilty of spoon-feeding me. 

How often has an intelligent, educated, and seemingly-wise teacher with a vast and valuable knowledge- and understanding-base quenched the desire that a student may have to learn simply by not embracing a desire to share?  How often is the learning process retarded, because those who have the knowledge will not share it with those who do not have it?  I have, at times, experienced this “what is mine is mine, and I will not share” attitude in the highly competitive research environment where it is believed by some that withholding knowledge grants power, and sharing knowledge weakens your position to dominate as a researcher.  How often does this attitude seep down into the classroom environment where the goal should be to encourage everyone to learn as much as they can?

Are there teachers who withhold answers just to ensure that the students do not grow to know more than they do?  Is this restricted sharing environment comforting for the teacher, and effective in stimulating the students to seek their knowledge elsewhere?  Are there teachers who are not motivated to take up the torch of lifelong learning?  Do our formal learning environments still accommodate teachers who have no interest in growing and developing, so they always have something new to share with their students?


Common sense – the stepping stone to successful problem solving

“My kids seem to have no common sense.  What do I do?”

 Before we consider whether common sense is something that can be acquired through exercise or practice, a curious reader may well ask, “But how do we know if we (or our children or students) have enough common sense?”  How much is enough?  Was I born to struggle with issues that require common sense?  Is my lack of common sense just the result of my genetic coding?  And why is problem solving hampered by the absence of common sense?  Can’t I find a way to become good at problem solving without growing my common sense?

These questions introduce complex topics that promise to weigh down the most athletic mind.  It’s easy (and extremely informative) to get caught up in the theories and debates that psychologists and educators invest themselves in.  My experience, however, is that most parents and teachers need practical solutions that will make learning easier for the children, and not a bunch of theoretical textbook quotations.  So here, we will rather focus on the practical issues, and how to overcome real-life hurdles that keep students from succeeding.  Parents and teachers may find they identify a little better with their children and students if they first challenge themselves to a fun, common sense test (an example is found at  The score doesn’t matter nearly as much as the insight this test will offer us into recognizing why common sense is so very important in the problem solving process.


Is it possible to put common sense back where it belongs?

For many students, something very fundamental is missing from the problem solving process. Many of my students simply couldn’t see the “obvious” as it glared at them from the question paper in front of them. Because they missed the simple sign posts that point the way to the solution in a problem solving activity, they quickly became hopelessly lost, and almost all would give up the moment the hopelessness attacked.

It took a while to realize that many of the students who struggled with the challenges of science or mathematics were not tripped up by a lack of knowledge of the subject. They knew the facts – they just didn’t know how to make the facts evolve into a solution to a fact-related problem. There are a number of reasons for this happening, but from my observation, the most common problem is that the students simply missed the “obvious”. It’s not that the students were rebelling against “common sense” just for the sake of rebelling. Most students simply had no idea that they lacked that vital ingredient to successful problem solving, that simple human quality which previous generations called good, old “common sense”. Sadly, it has become apparent that “common sense” is no longer common.

If common sense is missing, is it possible to put it back where it belongs? As we explore the process of learning, we will try to answer this question.


Do the words “science” and “mathematics” bring back bad memories?

If I asked you today which of your school classes gave you the most unpleasant memories, mathematics or science are bound to feature. My mathematician and scientist friends may recount stories of wonderful learning experiences, but most people can only remember the failed mathematics tests, the seemingly pointless experiments and lab reports, the boring geometry assignments, the pages of chemical formulae that seemed impossible to memorize, and all their teachers who couldn’t satisfactorily explain why anyone should have to learn arbitrary things like algebra.

In this blog, we will primarily, but not exclusively, explore learning in the context of science and mathematics. Why? Because fear and disappointment have a profound effect on us, and studying science and mathematics has been an intimidating and frightening experience for many people. Many people have concluded that they are “too stupid” to understand these subjects, and are destined to be failures where science and mathematics are involved. Many people have watched their own children struggle with homework, standing helplessly by as their kids sink deeper and deeper into their own sense of failure at not being able to understand the concepts and new ideas. Many teachers have hit the wall in frustration, having tried every way they know to communicate to their students what seems like a simple concept. Is success in science and mathematics really only the reward for an elite few?

Learning is simply the cognitive process of acquiring skill or knowledge. Instead of us trying to water down the facts, and dummy down the skill it requires to use the facts, why not do something to influence the process of acquiring the knowledge and the skill? And if we can indeed influence the process, how do we go about it?