The Access Points to Our Knowledge

Rockport, Massachusetts, USA

There are more than 2,000 islands along the coast of Maine, 200 of which are in the Penobscot Bay. My island, one of the few that is publicly connected to the mainland, is a 20-minute ferry ride shore to shore. We also have a water taxi for travel after 6:00 p.m. and emergencies. The internet is fantastic; cell service is spotty. As you’d guess, most year-round residents are lobster fisherman, who have their own boats. There is a small landing strip used by wealthy summer residents and Penobscot Island Air, who gets us our UPS packages. Part of what I love about my island life is the slow pace that relative isolation necessitates.

Why am I writing about islands for a teaching and learning essay? Because I want to use them as a metaphor for knowledge accessibility. Knowledge is literally encoded in the patterns of connections our brain cells have with one another. Each brain cell—and there are over 100 billion of them—is estimated to have 10,000 connections to other cells. Structurally, that means knowledge is distributed over the network. Functionally, once you get into a particular web of connections, the related information is easily accessible through the cell-to-cell contacts in a particular network. For example, once I get into my private network about oranges, I have access to knowledge about their shape, texture, color, taste, and smell and to memories of placing orange slices, peel facing out, into my mouth, as well as the way oranges are associated with death in the movie The Godfather.


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There are more than 2,000 islands along the coast of Maine, 200 of which are in the Penobscot Bay. My island, one of the few that is publicly connected to the mainland, is a 20-minute ferry ride shore to shore. We also have a water taxi for travel after 6:00 p.m. and emergencies. The internet is fantastic; cell service is spotty. As you’d guess, most year-round residents are lobster fisherman, who have their own boats. There is a small landing strip used by wealthy summer residents and Penobscot Island Air, who gets us our UPS packages. Part of what I love about my island life is the slow pace that relative isolation necessitates.

Why am I writing about islands for a teaching and learning essay? Because I want to use them as a metaphor for knowledge accessibility. Knowledge is literally encoded in the patterns of connections our brain cells have with one another. Each brain cell—and there are over 100 billion of them—is estimated to have 10,000 connections to other cells. Structurally, that means knowledge is distributed over the network. Functionally, once you get into a particular web of connections, the related information is easily accessible through the cell-to-cell contacts in a particular network. For example, once I get into my private network about oranges, I have access to knowledge about their shape, texture, color, taste, and smell and to memories of placing orange slices, peel facing out, into my mouth, as well as the way oranges are associated with death in the movie The Godfather.

But without an access point, knowledge is inactive. The concrete metaphor is that you can’t get to Durkee’s, my little grocery, without a way across the bay. The equivalent of this inaccessibility happens in my brain frequently. I know I know the words to a favorite song from my youth, but I can’t quite recall them. I recognize a face, but it’s difficult to call up the name. I know the term for the space inside a chloroplast, but I’m going to have to google it to remember it. I know the information. I know it is in my brain. But I need a point of access to get me to it.

The amazing thing in each of these situations is that once I have an access point, an entire network of information is open to me. I can hear the first notes of the song, and I instantly start singing. The person I’m looking at reminds me we met at a conference, and I remember not only their name but also their institution, field of study, and that their nephew attends the college where I work. Google pulls up the term “thylakoid space,” and I suddenly can tell you about how protons are pumped during photosynthesis. Once you get across the bay, you can visit not only Durkee’s but also the golf course, ice cream shop, and hiking trails.

And if the ferry isn’t running, because of the weather or mechanical issues or crew illness? Well, you are stuck, unless of course you have other ways to connect. That is why the water taxi is an essential service. But a kayak, jet ski, lobster boat, or small plane can also give you access in whichever direction you’re going. You can mostly come and go as you please. The neural equivalent here is that a melody gets me to the words of the song, but so might a long-time friend’s voice, an obituary, the recollection of a night of dancing, or a particular stretch of road. Having multiple ways into a neural network makes knowledge more accessible.

But let’s consider the networks students have as they are learning. As an expert, I probably could also have gotten to the name “thylakoid space” any number of ways. I could have started drawing a chloroplast or listing the structures or diagramming proton flow. I might even have gotten the name if I’d done a comparison with the mitochondria because the two organelles operate by similar mechanisms. A novice, however, will not initially have a robust set of connections. They must make them, and doing so requires more than reproducing a definition or drawing, which are the ways we often teach and our students study.

Here's an example from teaching and learning to drive my point home. I love giving oral exams. Part of the reason is that they are interactive. If a student is having trouble, I can ask a question several different ways, trying to find an access point. The particular student I’m thinking of was a B-ish student who I suspected knew more than they could demonstrate in high-stakes situations. I provided a couple of softball questions to ease some of their anxiety and then moved onto the content I was assessing. I wanted to see some ability to manipulate and apply the information we’d covered. Even after multiple attempts on my part, the student was stymied.

As a last resort, I pulled out our textbook and turned to the image I had used in teaching the info. As soon as I laid the image open on the desk, with the student still too far away to see the details, they began talking. It turned out that the student had the big idea and many of the details. And with a bit of prompting, the student could apply the information to a parallel situation. We were both a little surprised.

“What just happened?” I asked when the exam was complete.

“I saw the image, and everything came rushing back to me,” they replied, excitement and pride in their voice. “I studied that image really hard because you spent so much time on it in class. But I didn’t know that was what your questions were about.”

This was a key moment in my teaching. Here was a concrete experience that my method of teaching helped create a network of knowledge to which this student had limited access. I also grasped just how limited my typical exams were at measuring what a student “knew.” I was only providing the ferry route. If I wanted my students to be successful at learning my content, I needed to provide them with models for to build robust neural networks and opportunities for them to do so for themselves.


Amy B. Mulnix, PhD, currently is the interim associate secretary in the national Phi Beta Kappa office. Prior to that, she served as founding director of the Faculty Center at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, where she supported faculty across the arc of their careers and the scopes of their academic identities.