First published in Dutch on the 3rd of March 2013

What is the essence of knowledge acquisition?

I was preoccupied with this question as I separately counselled two students. One student, Raymond, was recovering from a serious psychosis and the other, Iris, tried to get a grip on an anxiety disorder for which she had been treated and was still administered medicine for. Both students wanted to get their studies back on track, but complained about bad concentration, forgetfulness, confusion and a shortage of energy. They felt they were not able to think and learn anymore in the way they were used to.

Filling your head

Down the road, it became clear to me that both students interpreted their problems in knowledge acquisition very physically and quantitively: “I cannot get the information in my head anymore”, “I cannot remember as much anymore”. These remarks are comparable to not being able to read the tiny letters at the optician or being unable to sense certain decibel during a hearing test. First they were able to do something and now they cannot do it anymore.


Raymond and Iris were looking for “aiding devices” from me that are similar to glasses. At the same time they were ambivalent towards this. They resisted such aids in the same way that we resist purchasing reading glasses or a hearing aid. That would namely be a sign of old age and decline. For Raymond and Iris accepting aiding devices meant an acknowledgement of a disability. They viewed the specific techniques that can be put into use to improve learning as a sort of prosthetic. In their eyes these are things a healthy or intelligent person does not need. It became clear to me that I had to tease out and highlight different misconceptions to enable an effective counselling.

No filing cabinet

The first misconception is the idea that learning is identical to filling your head with information. It is understandable that students think this. One is offered a lot of static information in books, articles, PowerPoints, lectures, etc. Many of us read the material, summarize it and subsequently try to cram it in our heads. For Raymond and Iris this was also the prevailing method and it is not odd that they had become less good in this due to their problems. But the essence of knowledge is very different from what we generally think. Learning ability cannot be compared to sense of sight and hearing ability. All experts have come to agree that our memory is not a filing cabinet. We neither “fill” the drawers nor “consult” the files. As a consequence the complete “volume” of the cabinet cannot become smaller and information is not necessarily lost if a “file” becomes damaged. The analogy is much too static in comparison to reality.

An interplay

Our way of functioning is a continuous interaction, or interplay with the environment. We are always situated in a context where we use available information (from the environment and from our memory) to achieve specific goals. We continually try to solve problems and answer questions. These vary from small trivial problems (I am bothered by the itch on my nose and what can I do to stop it?) to very large issues (how can I make sure this project will become a success?). Which information is relevant, is determined by the issue that we want to solve.

Learning capacity

For students in education this is no different. The issues within a course, for example, are: what is this about, how is this connected to the previous, what connects this to that, and how can I use it? The interplay consists of the relation of these students with the books, the lectures, the teacher, the articles, the seminars, the assignments, the fellow students, and (not unimportant) with oneself. The way of functioning within this interplay is the real learning capacity that our brains are for, not the capacity to process as much data as possible.

Information is no knowledge

A second misconception, as an extension of the first one, is the idea that information (or data) is equal to knowledge. They are fundamentally different. Information is static and immutable while knowledge is dynamic, and constantly dependent of goals and context. Socrates claimed that knowledge is empty if it does not improve our moral behaviour. I tend to agree to a large degree, though I would substitute moral behaviour with performance-oriented behaviour. Knowledge, thus, is functional by definition. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 is a historical fact, but this fact is no knowledge. The situation in which and the purposes for which this historical given is used determines the knowledge of which it is part. Presumably, this information is differently taught on a North American school than on a Northern European or Middle Eastern school. But even within the Netherlands this information will be dealt with differently in American studies than in Political science.


Knowledge, then, is shaped within the interplay of goals, available knowledge and context. This means that organisational skills are essential to the acquisition of knowledge. This is exactly what Raymond and Iris neglected supposing that only sheer brainpower is necessary for learning. Their mental problems were strengthened by a physical confusion that made them make ad hoc decisions and meant they often just “pottered about”. In complete chaos, one cannot gain knowledge and therefore cannot learn.

This is why I guided them into organising the interplay. The aiding devices I implemented were no protheses but strategies that form an integral part of knowledge acquisition. They had to set goals, make a planning (for time as well as task), and engage in functional contact with fellow students and teachers. The information that they got from books were only a part of the whole and had to serve the formulated goals rather than being a goal in and of itself.


My counselling sessions with both students have ended. Their way of functioning has improved in several areas. The confusion has been lessened and their concentration has increased. Their grip on the material is much better. Certainly, it is still hard and it costs them a lot of energy, but they are receiving passing grades that seemed impossible only a short while ago. And a result that, in my eyes, is even more important is: they feel a lot less disabled.