The Beginning of a New Research Journey: What is Knowledge?

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Introduction

A few weeks ago I was chatting with the finer-half’s ‘Dada’ on, of all thing, Plato. It was quite a deep discussion; the type of thing we sometimes talk about when Rosemary about. I was saying that although I’ve got plenty knowledge on endurance training, I was speculating that my coaching approach wouldn’t be much different to what Plato may have advocated. That is, to consider how the mind, body and soul work together and that athletes should be coached with this in mind. I also admitted that I found Plato incredibly difficult to read and interpret.

“Hmmmm…” Dada said.

“There was a day when I was able to read Plato in its original form, written in ancient Greek!”

That’s what comes with having a quasi-father-in-law who was classically educated at Pembroke College. We continued to discuss knowledge and how the philosophical side of it was so important. I felt that the Classics were a major omission in education. Rote learning and indoctrination seems to be the order of the day, rather than learning to think critically, creatively and problem solve. Human imagination is all that prevents us from living the life as an ant, so why do we educate it out of people? Noam Chomsky has a few good ideas on the subject in this YouTube video which are important to consider, but maybe not quite now.

“Until recently, I’d never considered or been asked to consider what knowledge is, assuming that the word requires no definition” I said to Dada.

“I’m just discovering that such a question almost drove Descartes insane and probably kept Plato awake at night too”.

The reason that I hadn’t considered such a question as ‘what is knowledge’ before as it had never dawned on me to do so. It hadn’t seemed at all important. However, things change. The question is one that I suspect may dominate the whole of my academic career. Serendipitously, I had fallen into the world of philosophy, not knowing much about it apart from through my own musings.

Exploring Knowledge

Like Rene Descartes I’m discovering that much of what I’ve learnt and even taught to others does not pass the knowledge test:
• do I believe it?
• is it true?
• what evidence do I have to support my beliefs?
• does it work in the real world?

My hard earned knowledge appears to be an illusion. I originally believed in metabolic thresholds, having seen ‘good’ evidence in academic literature to confirm that they exist. This evidence was re-enforced through my applied practice and that of my peers.

It was the same with carbohydrate supplementation through sports gels, powders and potions…. I believed there was excellent evidence to support their use, I used them myself, recommended them to others and taught other coaches about their ‘effective’ use.

Periodization, a systematic model of organising training, was something else I believed I had good knowledge of. I’d been taught it at undergraduate level, examined them during my PhD, been expected to apply them as an applied sports scientist and had taught the principles of Periodization as a coach educator. Learning styles were exactly the same…. I believed and taught that there were visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners.

Yet, one-by-one I started to dismiss these concepts or models as being untrue, supported by limited or problematic evidence. Therefore, they did not pass the belief, truth, evidence and ‘does it work in the real world’ tests to enable them to be confirmed as knowledge.

I started to believe, through experiential learning, that thresholds probably don’t exist, angry that I had spent many months trying to identify them using gas and blood data. I’d discovered that sports nutrition in many circumstances causes more problems than it solves and the evidence on its ergogenic benefits are woolly to say the least. I learnt that Periodization is a deterministic framework which fails to account for the important scientific principle of ‘shit happens’. Most coaches know that shit happens on most days!

I’d also learnt that there is little evidence to back up the existence of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners. This TED talk explains why in the size of a bite.

Yet, even a few weeks ago on a course, I was being taught that I should adapt my coaching, differentiating between athletes based on their learning styles rather than how to engage, make sessions more meaningful and fun for the athletes.

Kiely (2012) explains well why ‘stuff’ such as Periodization becomes an accepted truth:

“The reduction of the planning problem to a set of formulaic rules and automatized solutions satisfied the deep-seated human attraction to simplicity and explanatory closure, tempering our innate aversion to uncertainty and ambiguity”.

Physiological thresholds, nutritional guidance, Periodization and more importantly Styles of Learning have become deeply embedded in educational culture, affecting the beliefs of coaches and teachers. Such beliefs can limit the potential of those under their charge, waste resources and at the very worst, do harm. Challenging and changing such beliefs requires systemic change. However, innate human desire to deposit new information on the world simply adds variability to already complex dynamic problems. Most people do not like change, especially when it affects their status-quo.

Philosophy rather than the sciences has always had the solution. It requires that epistemology, the philosophical study of knowledge, underpins the approach to how we educate people and how we solve scientific problems.

I am naïve, recognising that I am at the beginning of my journey of exploring this subject that has engaged thinkers since the beginning of history. However, I think De Cock (1998), on discussing postmodern epistemology, was spot on when he wrote:

“The consequence of a postmodern stance is that we are advised to stop attempting to systematically define or define a logic on events and instead recognise the limitations of all our projects”.

This statement says to me that there are few absolute truths and that by seeking arbitrary epochs, deterministic rules and laws based on limited evidence. we impose more complexity, cause confusion and limit people’s potential.

Rather, if we accept that some things are impossible to define, that ambiguity and uncertainty is inevitable, then it becomes easier to make sense of the world and the creatures that inhabit it. By following a postmodern approach to education and epistemology, without dogmatism, by considering the philosophical underpinnings of beliefs, truths and evidence, then we are more likely to come up with paradigms that actually work in the real world. What we have now is whole educational systems that tend to deposit information on learners, building barriers to them becoming wise, knowledgeable and making a more worthwhile contribution to society.

The next stage for me is to start reading and writing more around epistemology. In my new world, I’ll have to learn a whole new language and research discipline before getting into the real nitty gritty. What do coaches know, why do they know it, how do they use it, does it work and if not….what is the solution?

References

De Cock, C. (1998). It seems to fill my head with ideas: A few thoughts on postmodernism, TQM and BPR. Journal of Management Inquiry, 7(2), 144–153.

Kiely, J. (2012). Periodization paradigms in the 21st century: evidence-led or tradition-driven? International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 7(3), 242–250.

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3 thoughts on “The Beginning of a New Research Journey: What is Knowledge?”

  1. Interesting post thanks, and much to chew on, but take care defining knowledge so categorically… it’s a big philosophical issue!

  2. Interesting post Andy, I’ve come to similar conclusions, however I think using concepts, theories and models are useful to show people different perspectives on the challenge they are attempting to solve, but don’t get wedded to any, for example I’ve read a lot of the work on why learning styles aren’t the answer, and I tend to agree as a comprehensive solution, but it does cast some light on the issue of two swimmers in a drill session, one who ‘can’t start’ until they fully ‘understand’ and the other is off before you half way through naming the drill to be done. Are they activists and theorist/reflectors? Almost certainly not always, maybe not even in this situation but it gives us something to think about as a coach. Does it work in a specific situation with a specific individual is probably as good as we can do. In educational terms, encouraging people to review theories, and challenge them and constructing their own thinking and learning is a better way to go.

    From Policy research there is ‘What works for who in what circumstances and why’ from the work of Ray Pawson, the theory translates well into coaching as well. There are too many variables to come up with definitive answers.

    1. Thanks for your comments Tony.

      I think we’re pretty broadly aligned, and would probably reach consensus between us.

      I’m thinking that one person’s knowledge is another’s information. The danger of using models, regardless of the intention of who designed it, is how they are applied stringently by others.

      As coach educators, we must consider and be aware of where, epistemologically, learners are and their likely interpretation of information we ‘deposit’ on them….. To do so, maybe the best way is simply for us to empower others to learn effectively rather than trying to tick boxes for some arbitrary competency profile.

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