Make Learning Meaningful: What is Foundational Knowledge?

Figure 1: Learner-centered revision of L. Dee Fink’s taxonomy of significant learning. In Fink’s original model, there are six categories of significant learning. In this revised version, we include ten categories of significant learning that are grouped together into larger categories of learning including Content, Character, Community, and Learning.

Our mission at The Learning Code is to encourage, support, and inspire you to create value in your college education. We know that you can succeed in your classes, earn your degree, and build a foundation for a career that you love. The Learning Code community is here to help you in that journey. However, we can only show you the door. You’re the one that needs to walk through it. To really build the type of college education that you value, you need to take ownership over your own learning. As we’ve stated previously, learning is all about change. To create significant learning experiences in college, you need to change the way you think about yourself, your goals, and your own learning. This includes developing a nuanced understanding of what it means to learn and figuring out the type of learning you want to do. In this post, we explore foundational knowledge which is one of eight different types of learning that you can create in college. This post is part of our Make Learning Meaningful series. The next seven posts in this series explore seven other types of learning you can engage in as you navigate your college degree. By expanding your understanding of what it means to learn, you can more easily seek out the types of learning you believe are right for your life and your future.

When thinking about the different types of learning you can do, we start a learner-centered version of L. Dee Fink’s taxonomy for significant learning. Later in this series, we’ll refine his model to include two new categories for exploration. However, in this post we explore our first type of learning known as foundational knowledge. How lucky we are to be able to use L. Dee Fink’s work as a starting point for this important conversation.

What is Foundational Knowledge?

We can think of foundational knowledge as what you learn. The phrase “I learned something new today” often alludes to this category of learning. Foundational knowledge refers to your capacity to understand and remember specific content, facts, information, and ideas. When you develop foundational knowledge, you create mental models that comprise your perception of the world around you. This includes the information and facts you encode in your memories. Foundational knowledge also consists of the ideas you use to engage in your world.

The process of building foundational knowledge can happen naturally or by design. For example, as you live your life, you build foundational knowledge of the physical layout, common language, and cultural expectations that exist in the spaces you inhabit. You remember relevant facts and information about your world that help you navigate and survive.

On the other hand, our educational systems prescribe large quantities of foundational knowledge as important for student learning. The intent of this pre-determined curriculum is for young learners to study established fields of inquiry. This might include content from science, math, engineering, technology, arts, history, literature, linguistics, environmentalism, geography, language, etc.

Consider the following questions:

  • What is democracy?
  • What is voting?
  • What are traffic laws?
  • What is money?
  • What is a family?
  • What words do I use to express an idea?
  • What is algebra?

The answers to these and similar questions represent information or ideas best categorized as foundational knowledge. In other words, foundational knowledge provides a foundation for you to engage in other types of learning.

Often your college professors and institutions impose large quantities of foundational knowledge onto your degree track without consulting you as a learner. These folks determine for you, without your express consent, the set of foundational knowledge that is and is not important for your future. This is, of course, ironic because the future is unknown. None of the experts charged with defining the requirements for your education have any idea what comes next for you in your life. In classes with 20+ students, a single instructor lacks the capacity and support to tailor an educational experience to your individual identity as a learner.

Thus, one of the central challenges of college is to create meaning and value out of a body of foundational knowledge that is mostly blind to your past, present, and future realities. To do this, you need to engage in other types of learning that go beyond understanding or remembering lists of facts. In the next posts in this series, we examine these types of learning so that you can contextualize and place value on the foundational knowledge you want to build in college based on how you position yourself in your world.

Community Challenge:

  1. Imagine you had complete control over your own college degree. In other words, imagine you could create any course(s) you wanted to study and define any degree you wanted to earn? What course(s) would you create? Who would teach those courses? What type of foundational knowledge would you include? Why?

  2. What are you curious about? What type of knowledge do you thirst for? What types of foundational knowledge get you excited? What type of knowledge do you seek out independent of authority figures or external incentives?

  3. How often do you feel excited about the foundational knowledge that is required in any of your college classes? If you often find yourself excited about learning facts and ideas in class, when do you find yourself most engaged? If you find yourself bored or uninspired by the facts, information, and ideas you study in class, why do you feel this way?

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