What a Teacher Wants InfoSec To Know, Pt. 3: Constructing Knowledge

Under Construction: Your Knowledge 7 minute read Published: 2021-02-21

Stop me if you've heard this one: an okay, not-great, semi-engaged student is called out by teachers by not "working to potential." Except that kid, in their spare time, is doing amazing things in whatever area they have a passion for. Truly incredible output, whether it be music, video, skating, or, yes, technology. But of course, that's not what the classroom gives a crap about, so the school thinks of the student as average.

I was that kid, and I bet more than a few of you were as well.

Here's the takeaway: sitting in a place and absorbing information is not learning. Also, an institution's assessment of you can be wildly incorrect if your values and the institution's don't align, but this post is focusing on the first part. Quite simply, we are all responsible for not just seeking knowledge, but building knowledge. It doesn't happen by exposure. Learning is not just remembering; myriad other processes we barely understand are taking place in the mind during the act of learning. Although we don't fully grasp the mechanics, several theorists have provided what I consider an effective model for understanding the big picture of building knowledge. Their work informed by praxis as an educator, and as an autodidact, it helps me use my energy effectively as I continue my journey in cybersecurity.

It's entirely possible you've heard the names John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, and Maria Montessori. If you read the last post, you absolutely know the name Lev Vygotsky. All these thinkers dealt with child development and the process of learning around the early 20th century. Remembering the context for formal education at that time is important. John Dewey in particular was an educational reformer seeking to move past the strictly rote learning models of the time. All these theorists recognized that being fed facts and then regurgitating them is not true learning, and yet that is what schools at the time required.

To some degree, this is still true—perhaps even moreso in professional IT learning. Did you memorize the OSI model? I bet you did. Can you explain the differences between each layer? Probably not, especially if you were studying the OSI model to pass a multiple-choice test like the Sec+ or CISSP.

Constructivism is the term for the collection of theories and practices pioneered by these thinkers (and others), which broadly states that knowledge is constructed, not acquired. In this model, the learner actively participates in the process, rather than simply sitting quietly and paying attention. The instructor's role changes as well: no longer simply a font of facts, the instructor should facilitate the grappling with concepts, aiding and informing where needed, but also allowing space for learners to explore and discuss.

Not all educational programs walk this walk. Some professional training in particular is much more info-dumping and much less allowing the learner to work with knowledge, apply it, and build understanding for themselves. And yet, that is exactly how real learning has to work.

Let's put that in direct infosec terms: it's not enough to memorize tool commands; you gotta go hack stuff with the tools. It's not enough to memorize Event Log names; you gotta hunt some threats in there. And as you do, think about what you're doing and how it relates to what you've done before.

It's All a Scheme

One framework I find extraordinarily helpful to understand constructivism is Piaget's notion of knowledge schemes. Schemes are domains or areas of understanding that come into contact with new experiences and both shape and are shaped by them. Your scheme for what a computer is, for example, has likely shifted over time to include new classes of devices. A phone was not a computer when I was a child, but today?

This is a tiny example of a scheme. Larger ones could extend to a person's entire worldview. The point is, new experiences alter the scheme, but how this occurs can be an active process if the learner is aware of it. Recognizing new information and grappling with how it fits into a prior model is, in my opinion, the heart of learning.

Similarities, Differences, and Relations

Since this is my blog, I'm going to take the liberty of playing education theorist myself a little bit. I would argue that a core component of learning is identifying similarities, differences, and relations between objects and ideas. Some concepts can only be described in opposite, such as hot and cold. Others, like color, are defined by differentiation. And when trying to explain something new, we reach for familiar similarities from other knowledge domains, or schemes. This might seem like an obvious point, but recognizing how reliant we are on relationships between understandings empowers us to use those relationships.

See, Piaget did a lot of work on individual knowledge schemes, but less on the notion of relationships between them. But there absolutely are connections between them, just as surely as there are links between neurons in the brain. But knowledge schemes are abstract models, so examining them is much more difficult, much less empirical, than the study of dendrites and axons.

I am very interested in the nature of the connective tissue between knowledge schemes. Put another way, how do we relate one area of knowledge to another? My best theory is narrative. We connect knowledge by telling ourselves stories.

We Are All Storytellers

The human mind loves a good story. We like to fit events into a line with a beginning, middle, and end. I'm not so sure that's how memory actually is collected, but it's certainly how information is communicated. When speaking, we do so in orderly, linear sentences, even if the thoughts behind those words are less structured. That's why it's often said writing imposes order on the chaos of thought.

Think about any time you've learned a new skill or concept. One of the first thoughts you probably had was structured like "This is like X in this way, but different in this way." This "difference story" is key to building new knowledge schemes. It is a pathway from one understanding to another.

Narrative also plays a role internally to knowledge schemes. Ever hear that the best way to learn something is to try to teach it? Yeah, that's because trying to explain a concept to someone else forces the nebulous knowledge into an order. That order is a narrative about what, how, and why.

Go Meta

Metacognition is thinking about thinking. Here, it can be useful to us as learners to examine how we're learning. Armed with the understanding that we are responsibly for constructing our knowledge, and that the stories we tell ourselves link our knowledge schemes together, we can start to seriously examine what we truly understand and what we still need to work on.

No matter what skills you're learning, no matter what area, no matter the platform, there is one trick I cannot recommend enough. Take notes if you want, but even more importantly, keep a journal of your learning. Write a regular diary of what you're working on. Explain the what, how, and why to yourself. If writing isn't your thing, maybe do a video diary? However you can process your learning into a narrative, lending order to the chaos of the mind, do it. Building that narrative tissue will cement the knowledge in your mind, and make learning the next related concept that much easier.

It's your mind. Build it how you want it to look.