Building knowledge

Theaetetus by Plato

“For this feeling of wonder shows that you are a philosopher, since wonder is the only beginning of philosophy.” [Plato,  Theaetetus] 

When we want to know something, what we do is to search for reliable sources of information, to look for people who spent their lives studying a subject, trying to give it a sense, trying to make the topic understandable and clear and adding their own insights by formulating some statements which should define – and sometimes confine – the realm of knowledge we can get.
When we search for information, the first thing we rely on is the literature on the topic: we delve into books and papers, read, listen and watch everything relevant. Like sponges, we absorb what the world have already said and thought about the subject at hand, we take one or two of those main concepts, adopt them and elaborate our personal and critical insights starting from there.
We might end becoming experts and authorities on that subject with people asking us to explain the mysteries we already faced in the early stages of our research.
We build our knowledge step by step, brick by brick, by collecting information and combining it in something that fits the existent knowledge and our experience.

Once we assembled the bricks of our knowledge, what’s left is generally a nice definition and a script we keep repeating and explaining anytime someone ask us about it. It’s a nice script, something we know by heart and subconsciously repeat – like actors on the stage, we know what we are supposed to answer. Our knowledge, to recall Plato’s Theaetetus, is a justified true belief, less than a discovery and much more like a collection of inputs variously assembled and elaborated by the individual. We belief in what we know, and when striving to know something, we collect information we believe in and that justify our vision. Such an approach though leaves imagination a side role: absorbing others’ saying is not enough; imagining what ifs is an essential part, as knowledge can emerge from imagination itself and reveal new insights and new connections. Imagination and creativity are pivotal for knowledge.

Knowledge has always put in strict relation with the lack of it and the awareness of such a lack: Confucius, Socrates, Copernicus … all have underlined that knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance, the latin scio me nescire concept that implies that knowledge can develop from the awareness of the limits of our knowledge.
This is though something missing in our culture, where we rarely admit that we do not know something and faithfully rely on our well prepared and long studied scripts to deliver answers that prove that we know. However, knowledge comes from doubts, from facing questions like they were asked for the very first time, from imagining answers that are not already on the table. We can create knowledge almost from scratch, by leaving what we know behind and  immerse ourselves into our non-knowledge and imagination, to reshape and reconstruct what we know in the very same process children goes through, by connecting and asking the most naif questions. Curiosity is the key that leads to the will and desire to learn, it’s the energy that can transform students into active learners though the maieutic approach that Socrates describes in the Thaeatetus: “I am, then, not at all a wise person myself, nor have I any wise invention, the offspring born of my own soul; but those who associate with me, although at first some of them seem very ignorant, yet, as our acquaintance advances, all of them to whom the god is gracious make wonderful progress, not only in their own opinion, but in that of others as well. And it is clear that they do this, not because they have ever learned anything from me, but because they have found in themselves many fair things and have brought them forth.

So if we try to unlock what is Heritage, we might come to definitions like the one provided by the Oxford English Dictionary which defines ‘heritage’ as ‘property that is or may be inherited; an inheritance’, ‘valued things such as historic buildings that have been passed down from previous generations’, and ‘relating to things of historic or cultural value that are worthy of preservation’.

The idea we had with the Department of Architecture at University of Ferrara (Italy) was to teach students in Architecture what Heritage is, not by merely telling them what to read, by giving them the most complete and extensive bibliography you may think of, but by adopting a creative, imaginative, constructive and maieutic approach.  There are a number of theories out there that explain Heritage, but simply feeding students with theories can inhibit their imagination, their ability to critically think and interrogate themselves on their personal positions and ideas. To achieve this, we experimented a sort of modern maieutics based on abductive reasoning, grounded in the constructivist and constructionist traditions using LEGO bricks.

LEGO SERIOUS PLAY is a method widely used in organisation for team building, strategy and vision definition and to develop identities, both team and individual ones. If such a method does wonders in organisational context and with coworkers, we assumed it could also work with students in their early twenties.  The specific aim was to help students not to repeat notions and definitions they might have read somewhere, but to ask themselves what heritage is and induce their reflection. To overcome the scripts they might had in their heads we needed to change the rules of the game and let students to play.

How could this work?  Playing is an activity which is known as being community-oriented, that enhances the construction of a shared identity through the development of a shared language and shared social practices (Huizinga 1950): peer interaction, no emotion suppression, no threat perception and imaginative processes are all essential elements to enhance creative thinking (Mitra 2012). Moreover, our hands are widely connected with our brain: we start making sense of the world by using our hands (Piaget & Inhelder 1972) and when we do things with our hands, when we build a tridimensional object, we enhance our cognitive potential and we think on a different level: freed up by the limits of the syntactic logic, we connect thoughts while putting the bricks together. Bricks assume a brand new meaning, they become metaphors convening a number of deeper concepts that go far beyond words. By explaining their models people delves into their inner thought and find out a number of latent connections which were evident in the model but, because of our scripts and the tendency to avoid real thinking while answering questions, had less chance to emerge and being revealed.
The objects, the models students construct are said to be embodied, as the meaning-making process takes place within a physical experience in a very close relationship between the individual and the object.

The process enhanced by LEGO SERIOUS PLAY stimulated students’ to move beyond the rationalist, analytical and convergent thinking to embrace a divergent thinking, creative and synthetic approach (Heracleous & Jacobs 2011).  Students had no idea of all these underlying theories, they simply played and acted following what the facilitator was asking them to do. They built their individual models representing what heritage is for them. They shared it with the group and by telling the story of the model they integrated in their stories both the problems and solution, reflecting and thinking aloud, adjusting their models, playing with the bricks, finding inconsistencies either in the model and in their words. They discussed and challenged each other’s model. They discovered new things about themselves and their mates, they agreed and disagreed and accepted the challenge to build a shared model of what Heritage is for them as a team.
They negotiated their individual models, take them apart, combined them, built and destroyed the objects while shaping a brand new concept of heritage as they see it. It was a playful yet engaging experience that shaped their learning path, stimulating their critical thinking and their overall reflection.

If it’s true that Heritage is identity, culture, land and policy and that an extensive literature exploited those concepts in a number of directions, students – without having an extended knowledge of the literature and without needing to refer to any formal learnt definition – came out with the same concepts in a choral and collaborative way, literally building those ideas with their hands, so that now, when they will be dealing with the body of literature, they will be able to recognise the concepts they have come out with, question the authors and themselves on a brand new level.

Moreover, the experience has been used as a leading experience for a group project: students were invited to keep reflecting on the experience and the concepts that emerged during the workshop and develop a project about heritage based on  their shared concept of heritage as build in their final model. This turned out to have a highly educational aspect: students became real functioning teams who find easier to work together since they start from a well defined and negotiated shared understanding of their goals and leading principles, which otherwise might represent the major obstacle in any collaborative work.

And to end, I think that Shimon Schocken‘s talk perfectly summarise the key issues described in this post, many of which will be exploited later: self-learning as the key element, team-work as a resource, grading that is becoming degrading.


Heracleous, L. & Jacobs, C. D. (2011) Crafting strategy: Embodied metaphors in practice Cambridge University Press

Huizinga, J. (1950), Homo ludens: a study of the play-element in culture. Boston: Beacon Press

Mitra, S. (2012) The future of people. 2012

Piaget, J. & Inhelder, B. (1972) The psychology of the child. New York. Basic Books.


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