January 12, 2022

Knowledge Series – Part 5: The Bucket Theory of the Mind

It's common sense to think that knowledge gets transferred through words. Books or teachers, or sometimes demonstrations.

However, words (and actions) are always interpreted. To understand what someone is saying, you have to make guesses about their context, goals, premises, and so on.

"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood."

– Karl Popper

So what's always happening is that the student is making their own guesses about what the teacher or book is saying. This is a creative process.

And they're making these guesses for a reason: because it solves a problem they have.

The student may be trying to understand the school's framework so they can pass the exam, or the student may be interested in the content for its own sake. The type of problems the student has informs what kinds of guesses are relevant, and what the student ends up learning.

Philosopher Karl Popper said that knowledge is always created from within, not from without.

This is a slightly archaic way of saying: knowledge is always (re)created by the learner, never 'transferred' by the educator.

The misconception that knowledge is like a substance that is poured from teacher to student is what Popper called the bucket theory of the mind.

In fact, students are not receptive 'buckets'. That is an authoritarian way of thinking about education: it's saying the teacher knows the truth and the student should listen.

People don't learn things for no reason. They learn things when it solves a problem they have. When it resolves a mystery they were curious about, or gets them a practical advantage in life, or dissolves some hardship.

And people don't learn things just because a teacher said they should. Either they think the teacher has legitimacy, or they think they will be punished if they don't obey, or they are genuinely interested in the content.

Learning and knowledge both work using exactly the same process: there is a problem the person is interested in solving, and they are conjecturing solutions.