If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

READ: Approaches to Knowledge

Approaches to Knowledge

By Bob Bain, adapted by Newsela
How do people create knowledge? It starts by being puzzled, curious, or even confused about the world. There’s a sense of wonder in it all.
Here in a library, surrounded by books, I’ve set out to write about knowledge. Libraries make such appropriate places to discuss knowledge because their purpose is to store knowledge — that’s why communities build them. In many ways, libraries are repositories of collective learning, an idea that is very important in the Big History course.
In this library and others, knowledge exists in many forms: books, maps, films, videos, CDs, and, of course, textbooks.
The Big History class does not have a textbook, but it’s still useful to think about them and the knowledge within.
I’ll tell you how I approached textbooks when I was a student and how most of my high school and college students approach their textbooks.
They typically ask one big question: “How do we get the stuff out of that textbook and into our heads or, more important, onto the tests?” And frankly, that was the question I asked as a student: “How can I get the facts out of the textbook and onto the test?"
Main Reading Room at the U.S. Library of Congress, courtesy of Carol McKinney Highsmith Archive, The Library of Congress

Big History asks questions about knowledge

In Big History we ask a very different question: “How did that knowledge get into the textbook?” That is, in Big History we wonder, “How did people discover the facts or create the ideas that are in our textbooks or in our courses?”
Did you ever wonder how people create knowledge? Well, in this course you are going to meet many people who discovered or created the information that is in your textbooks. You will meet cosmologists, physicists, geologists, biologists, historians, and more. They are excited to tell you what they have learned. But they are also excited to tell you how they learned it. They are going to tell you how people in their field approach knowledge, the questions that interest them, and how they used intuition, authority, logic, and evidence to support their claims.
In Big History, we want you to pay attention to the questions these scientists and scholars ask and the tools and evidence they use to answer their questions.

Questions, tools, and evidence!

Let’s look more carefully at how scholars use questions, tools, and evidence to create or discover ideas, facts, and knowledge.
Most of the scholars you’ll meet in this course begin their investigations with questions. They are puzzled, curious, or even baffled about the world around them. Sometimes their inquiry begins in wonder.
Unlike textbooks that place questions at the end of learning, scholars pose the questions first and use them to drive forward their learning.
Galileo Explaining Moon Topography to Skeptics by Jean-Leon Huens © National Geographic Society/Corbis
Have you noticed that your teacher, the Big History units, and David Christian’s videos all use questions — big questions — to launch your study?
Before conducting an inquiry, scholars speculate or make a thoughtful guess about what they’ll learn. We often call these thoughtful guesses “conjectures” or “hypotheses.” But a question or a hypothesis isn’t knowledge yet. Scholars need to gather information to answer their questions. As you’ll learn in later units, sometimes people create or use new tools to help them gather new information. For example, Galileo used a telescope he made to collect new data about the heavens and the planets.

Scholars turn information into evidence to support claims

Gathering information does not automatically answer scholars’ questions. The information must also be organized, analyzed, and then evaluated to see if it answers the initial or driving questions.
Scholars may then make claims that answer their questions, and use the information as evidence to support their claims. The stronger the evidence, the better the support for the claim — and the greater chance it has to enter a textbook, for others to learn about it.

Scholars must show how they answered their questions

Let’s review. In this essay, I wondered how knowledge gets in textbooks and, in answer to my question, I have described a few steps:
  • First, scholars have questions or they are curious or puzzled about something.
  • Second, they make a conjecture — a thoughtful guess or hypothesis.
  • Next, they gather information to answer the question, often using new tools in the process.
  • They then analyze the information, think about it, and, perhaps, use some of it to answer their question.
  • Scholars use information as evidence to support or make their claims.
  • When claims become well supported, they enter textbooks for students to learn.
But the scholars’ work is still not finished. They also must share what they learned and show how they learned it. Why do they have to show how they learned it? Isn’t simply telling what they learned enough? Why must they also explain how they conducted their investigation, how they analyzed their information, and how they supported their claims?
Scholars want to contribute to collective learning. They want people to see how they arrived at their claims and what evidence supports the claims. They do not want people to simply trust their claims based only on intuition, logic, or authority.
Scholars also want others to improve their claims. This might involve using new tools or new methods to gather new evidence to support or challenge the claims. Or it might mean asking a different question entirely.

Different approaches to knowledge

All the scholars you meet — whether archeologists, anthropologists, biologists, or experts in another field — ask important questions. They all make conjectures, gather data, and analyze it to make claims, but there are differences among and between these individuals. While they all ask important questions, make conjectures, gather data, and analyze it to make claims, there are differences among and between these scholars. They all begin their investigations asking questions, but they ask different questions. They all have ways to gather data, but they often have different ways to gather data.
As you meet the instructors in this course, do more than just learn what they are teaching; try as well to understand how they do their work, what questions they ask, and how they answer their questions. You might ask each of them:
  • What are the big questions that have interested you and driven you to personally pursue the answers?
  • What were your guesses, speculations, and hypotheses?
  • How did you collect your evidence?
  • Where did you see the patterns in your evidence? What did those patterns seem to indicate?
  • What were your biggest ideas?
  • How did you make your ideas public?
  • Why should others believe your ideas?
  • When and why have you changed your mind?
Make sure to pay attention to big questions that haven’t been answered. These are questions that you and your friends might take up. Who knows? Maybe you can contribute to the textbooks of the future.

Big History’s approach to knowledge

As you might have already guessed, in Big History we ask lots of big questions. We’re going to ask questions about the physical world, the living world, and the human world. This will require us to use many different approaches to knowledge. One of the most exciting things about Big History is that we will use ideas that come from many different places. That is why you’re going to meet such a great variety of people who have contributed to our collective learning.
And why we want to give you the chance to ask, “How did that knowledge get into the textbook?”

For Further Discussion

The ability to come up with good, researchable questions is something that we have learned that all scholars do, but how do they come up with those questions? What are some strategies you might use in figuring out how to ask the right questions when thinking about historical research and inquiry?
Please share your strategies in the Questions Area below

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user Mildred Mobus
    I think one thing is to try to figure out how to ask a question that is manageable enough to research. In other words, what is a good scope of a question. I usually think about this in terms of an assignment. If I am just writing a short paper, I might be super specific and ask "what did so and so think about this one very particular topic at this particular date in time", but if I'm supposed to write a term paper i might try to answer something bigger like, "what were some of the main causes of the war of 1812". i think that really helps narrow things down. also, being specific helps a lot.
    (17 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Martial Writer
    Sometimes questions or ideas just hit you. Or you read or do something that leads to your question. And when it comes to researching your question, you need to narrow it down, otherwise you will just waste a lot of time sifting through stuff that is not really related to your question.
    (7 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leaf grey style avatar for user Adam H
    Start with a question that interests you. If it has no current satisfactory answers, ask what questions may need answering in order to be able to answer the initial question, until you get to a point where you can research/find/test that question
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • female robot amelia style avatar for user Jack Huntley
    I would find a mysterious question in the world of science, then look at it and see if it is technologically viable to research it, if so proceed to research it, if not find a question you can research.
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • marcimus pink style avatar for user brian knox
    I think a very good place to start when asking a question is also the most basic. Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? It also doesn't matter how crazy your idea may be. If you find evidence that contradicts it, you are not wrong, you merely found one way that wasn't right. As long as you keep trying, and are open to other ideas, you might just find the answer you were looking for.
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • spunky sam green style avatar for user Sabrina Groom
    I think that to ask the right questions you just need a subject. I don't think any questions can be wrong when it comes to scientific knowledge.
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Anna  Ignateva
    You can ask right questions if you think attentivly enough about what you need. Exactly you as person. I think there are three components: ability to concentrate on youself's needs, mental abilities and the will strong enough
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
    What are some strategies you might use in figuring out how to ask the right questions when thinking about historical research and inquiry?

    I'm a fan of randomness. It doesn't always work. Frequently it results in ridiculousness. But by writing single nouns on papers of one color, adjectives on papers of another color, and "categories" like time or space on papers of another color, one can throw them all into a hat and draw out, say, 2 adjectives, one noun and one "category" and develop a research question or topic. To be sure, when something like "upside-down green quarks in the middle ages" emerges, it's of little value. But getting something like "heavy dark hydrogen in intergalactic space" just might lead to a research question.
    Try it. You'll fail a lot, but may just come up with new questions, and new discoveries.
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leaf red style avatar for user Aslan Feb
    When looking for a question to ask about a historical research and inquiry i I think it is best if you research, and brainstorm.
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user mabadejeayodelegrace
    I am not a khan Academy student/pupil I am just doing online class so How can I get the textbook I'm in NIGERIA and I am in another school in my country (solid children foundation)
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user