‘Closed’ v. ‘open’ systems of knowing

Teaching As a Subversive Activity

I am rereading Teaching As a Subversive Activity, which is a phenomenal book if you haven’t read it. About halfway through the book, Postman and Weingartner discuss ‘closed’ versus ‘open’ systems of knowledge:

A closed system is one in which the knowables are fixed. Examples of this kind of system would include any in which most of its answers are either yes or no, right or wrong, clearly and without any other possibility. (p. 116)

Open systems may be thought of as situations in which there are degrees of ‘rightness,’ and in which a right answer today may well be a wrong answer tomorrow. (p. 117)

Most of what we do in school falls under the description of a ‘closed’ system. There is typically a right answer, the teacher (or the textbook or the learning software) knows it, and it’s up the student to ‘learn’ it and then spit it back correctly: Describe the water cycle. If 4x2 + 3 = 39, what is x? What is the capital of Delaware? 

In life, however, much of what we do falls under the description of an ‘open’ system. We ask questions and make choices and devise solutions that seem right at the time given the particular context: What major should I choose? Should I look for a new job? Is she the one with whom I want to spend the rest of my life? Which car is best for our family? At another time, in another context, we might decide and act differently. This is true for both individual- and citizen-/policy-level decisions: Should we try to stop Russia from annexing Crimea? Are ethanol subsidies a good way to reduce our nation’s fuel dependence? Should I vote ‘yes’ for the school district referendum? When should we place limits on free speech?

Many argue that fixed knowledge items such as ’the water cycle’ or ‘4x2 + 3 = 39’ or ‘the capital of Delaware’ are the necessary parts that form a foundation for deeper, more cognitively complex thinking. And that’s often true. But it’s a whole nother matter to treat fixed items of knowledge as sacrosanct or to elevate them to the primary desired outcomes of schooling, particularly given the increasing presence of Internet-enabled learning contexts in which such items are easily and quickly accessible. Instead of treating content retention and procedural thinking as foundational floors from which we then build larger, more important edifices of learning, we have made them into almost-impermeable ceilings that drive teaching, curriculum, and assessment.

To fully prepare most students for life – and, arguably, to reengage many of them in the learning, not just social, aspects of their schooling – they need greater immersion in open systems of learning where questions are raised, answers aren’t fixed, and solutions are often contextual. This is true for all grade levels, not just secondary. So far most schools don’t do a great job with this. Instead, what schools usually do

in effect [is] to make closed systems of largely open ones. (p. 117)

We take areas of knowledge like science or government or language or health and we set them in stone – “yes or no, right or wrong, clearly and without any other possibility” – instead of bravely facing them – as they are in real life – as open opportunities for discussion, inquiry, problem-solving, and, yes, divergent learning and knowing.

A tremendous challenge for us as educators and policymakers is to stop reducing learning to convergent, ‘closed’ models of knowing and instead embrace the power and potential of more ‘open’ systems of knowledge and inquiry. This challenge is worth taking on because

very few problems of any great significance can be answered if they are approached from a ‘closed’-system point of view. (p. 117)

And goodness knows we have innumerable problems of great significance that would benefit from some fresh thinking…

12 Responses to “‘Closed’ v. ‘open’ systems of knowing”

  1. Excellent post, Scott. Honestly, I love it when PhDs use nother and sacrosanct in the same sentence! It also helps that I agree with you completely on this one.

    That said, I think schools and policy makers need help doing what you’re asking them to do. There’s a reason schools function the way they do today, and it’s typically because the people within schools are reacting to the actions and mandates of others. When legislators demand accountability in the form of correct answers on multiple choice tests, educators can easily feel trapped. Limited resources and growing class sizes compound the feeling.

    After recognizing that the problem exists and agreeing that schools should be more open, what would recommend for step two?

    • It’s true that schools are perfectly designed to get the results they’re currently getting.

      It’s also true that external mandates feel like significant barriers to doing much of this. And I don’t want to minimize that HUGE challenge. And yet… and yet there are schools functioning within the exact same accountability expectations and regulations that are doing things quite differently. So much of it is – as Richard Elmore would say – our own internal accountability to ourselves about what we want to be about, not just external accountability. And I do agree that folks need help getting there…

      I think Step 1 needs to be a deeper development of the WHY:


      For all the rhetoric around ‘global competitiveness’ and ’21st century skills,’ I still don’t think most educators really feel the need to enact significant changes deep in their gut. They just don’t.

      Step 2 then probably should be a look at other places that are doing ‘school’ differently. It’s hard to say ‘this can’t be done!’ when faced with other schools that are indeed doing it. Then it becomes a matter of design, will, and capacity-building…

  2. As a student I am very in favor of an open system of knowing. I think that most questions people have to answer in the real world are very open ended and full of grey areas. School should help us learns to understand those grey areas and think of many possible solutions. However I think some knowledge facts is required to use an open system of knowing.

  3. I like the closed vs. open concept of information. I will definitely check out that book. I have always thought of this idea as “Googleable v. Non-Googleable” questions, which is basically the same idea. By thinking of it this way, it will also help students to think about their questions and whether or not they might be able to find the answer by performing an effective Google Search. I also think that framing it this way also helps to reinforce the idea of closed v. open knowledge.

    Here is a quick blog post that I wrote which links to a great resource for Googleable v. Non-Googleable questions.

  4. Read this book back before most of you were born! Changed my whole outlook on my teaching approaches back in the day.

  5. I, too, read this before most were born. It makes me sad to think that it hadn’t made more of an impact in all these years, but glad that you’re highlighting it.

  6. It’s a sign. I have been debating endlessly which book to read from a short list of 30… I guess this is the one. Thanks

  7. I am in a educational media technology class at the University of South Alabama where we are learning about open ended questions and project based learning. I am going to post the book title on my blog summary this week to recommend reading it. Anastasia Martin EDM 510 Blog

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