Grokking it

A few months ago I wrote about a learning trajectory that I have been riding for the last year or so. I ended with a few questions:

How can I help transform moments of formal and informal learning with my students into seedlings of curiosity that they, themselves, can nurture and grow?
How can I help students learn to sip from the internet’s firehose of information in a way that empowers them to have agency as capable, self-directed learners?
How can I develop the patience, intentionality, and resourcefulness in students that will equip them to build bridges to new territories of thought and walk across them at the same time?

Sounds exciting, right? I look forward to investing a lot of my professional future in answering these questions as best I can.

But I see that there is a way to fundamentally misinterpret these questions as a threat instead of an opportunity: if information is cheap does that mean that expertise is cheap too? Can a glut of information actually be a threat to knowing?

Grokking sounds like an ugly word
In some communities, “grokking it” means something along the lines of learning by intuition; “grokking” is not necessarily associated with depth of knowledge or attention to nuance. In his book, Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff provides an example of grokking vs. understanding through the lens of our society’s changing relationship with time itself. In one example, Rushkoff confesses that he “doesn’t know whether to be delighted or horrified” by a high school student who “already saw the world in fractal terms and assumed that being able to fully grasp one moment of Hamlet would mean that he had successfully ‘grokked’ the whole.” Rushkoff sympathizes by considering the student’s context: “Functioning in [our] world does require getting the ‘gist’ of things and moving on, recognizing patterns, and then inferring the rest.” While in this context grokking seems like a useful skill, the example makes it clear that grokking should not be conflated with real understanding.

Is that a lurking threat in our 21st century classrooms? Is a mix of grokking and Googling threatening to replace the value of developing a real depth of understanding?

But if you haven’t grokked it yet…
Speaking of grokking and Googling — have you looked up “grok” online yet? (Did that strike you as a worthwhile idea at any point while reading the last paragraph? And if not, does that say anything about what it takes for the abundance of information on the internet to be a transformational resource?)

If you look up “grok” on Wikipedia, it turns out that the word was coined by Robert A. Heinlein in his 1961 science fiction novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. The definition that he offers in the book offers a very different perspective on the word:

Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed — to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.

Heinlein’s original definition of grok seems to suggest the opposite of Rushkoff’s high school student who presumed knowing by inference: instead this kind of grokking makes learning an immersive, almost mystical activity. This kind of grokking removes the model of learning as acquiring knowledge and replaces it with a model of learning as a kind of sci-fi singularity with knowing.

Maybe grokking is a powerful way to look at learning.

Grokking as a good thing
In Mindstorms, Seymour Papert considers “a more humane” way of knowing that reminds me of this original take on grokking. He points out that:

…sophisticated adults use certain metaphors to talk about important learning experiences. They talk about getting to know an idea, exploring an area of knowledge, and acquiring sensitivity to distinctions that seemed ungraspably subtle just a little while ago.

Doesn’t this description of learning seem closer to “the observer [becoming] a part of the observed” than with grokking-by-inference? And if this way of knowing is, in fact, possible, then why does the language adults use not align with the way students talk about learning?

Papert continues his discussion:

Skills and discrete facts are easy to give out in controlled doses. They are also easier to measure. And it is certainly easier to enforce the learning of a skill than it is to check whether someone has “gotten to know” an idea. It is not surprising that schools emphasize learning skills and facts and that students pick up an image of learning as “learning that” and “learning how.”

Here’s where all of this leads me: teaching in a time when information is cheap does not mean that expertise or real understanding might become cheap too. Reading the Cliff’s Notes will never be the same as reading Shakespeare, no matter how presumptuous some students may be. (Though if nothing else I would like to try leveraging the confidence of “I can grok the rest” so long as students are approaching challenges that way.)

Instead the opportunity is to recalibrate the balance of “what” and “how” in my classes to make more room for “why.” I still am working to answer questions about how to develop patience, curiosity, and agency in my students. And at the same time I see there is an opportunity to change the image of learning as “learning that” and “learning how” to a more humane, mature relationship with knowing.


One thought on “Grokking it

  1. I was preparing to have a Heinlein sized bird at the use of grok as described. The transmogrification of the word is a little scary. Immersion in and osmotic uptake of a concept, now that makes sense as a goal. Registering a fleeting image (because that’s how information is presented on devices, really) does not cut it.
    Let’s lead the kids back to the original meaning.

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