States of Knowledge: Solid, Liquid or Gas?

May 12, 13 States of Knowledge: Solid, Liquid or Gas?

I love it when a confluence of ideas gets me thinking in different ways. This past week, three separate “events” came together in the question that I’m about to propose. On Monday, I continued to ponder Wodek Szemberg’s question about the knowledge that students leaving our education systems need to have in order to meet the challenges and opportunities of this century. The following day, I had was engaged in a conversation one of my education students from Canisius College about a unit on the States of Matter that they were preparing for his grade two students. Finally, I continued to follow some of the philosophical texts by Gert Biesta suggested by Tobey Steeves.

I woke up on Thursday morning with a question that, in a way, represents a point of intersection—a place where all three streams of thought seemed to come together:

Is knowledge a solid, a liquid or a gas?

Strange question, eh? But, I’ve presented it to several people ove the past few days and, in each case, it has resulted in some interesting conversations.

If knowledge, in the sense of what we know and how we come to know it, is seen as being a solid—known, true, sure—then it is something that can be picked up and easily transferred from one place to another. Even if we break it up into smaller chunks, it still holds it essential character. A broken piece of cookie, still retains it’s “cookie-ness”

One of the criteria that distinguishes a solid from a liquid is the ability of liquid matter to take the shape of its container. Liquids flow to take the shape of the unique context in which they are placed. In addition, liquids will combine easily with other liquids, creating a new substance. Two liquids, when mixed, form something new!

A gas, the most “dynamic” of the three states of matter, has the ability to completely fill the context into which it is placed. It will mix with other gases that it encounters. Unlike liquids, however, gases will flow out in all directions!

I could go into all of the thinking that has emerged since I first started shop the question around, but I think that, for now, I’ll just leave it there.

When you think of knowledge, do you think of it as a solid, a liquid or a gas. How does your response to the states of matter question resonate with our current model of schooling? How do our current systems of education seem to view knowledge?

What is the state of the matter?



About Stephen Hurley

I've been privileged to spend the last 30 years serving the public education system in Ontario. Through opportunities to work at most levels of the system, I have developed a heart for big picture thinking that is grounded in the reality of today's schools. I'm passionate about my own learning and look forward to nurturing that passion through my presence at


  1. Deep thoughts for early morning!
    I think knowledge encompasses all three. Water, for example has the ability to be all three depending on the surrounding conditions. I think knowledge is also this way, mutable, malleable and nimble. It has to have freedom to explore (like gas) the ability to flow (like water) and the necessity to be grounded (like a solid) but it can and shall transform when needed.

    Schools view knowledge as a solid, quantifiable and stagnant. We all know what happens to water when it isn’t allowed to move, to flow; it becomes stagnant and breeds unpleasant life. Schools are based on control. Gas and water need freedom.

    Matter is in constant motion. All solids, liquids and gases are comprised of energy in motion. Even solids, if looked at “way up” close will reveal atoms in constant motion. Nothing escapes the ability to be transformed. It is only a matter of perspective and resistance. Schools are no different.

    And now I must go forth and transform the rest of my idea; hopefully with a renewed perspective and no resistance! :)

  2. I meant “day” not “idea” a little mutation and malleability right there!

  3. Nancy /

    Would it not be easier for one and all to followed the dictionary meaning of Knowledge?

    Information and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.
    What is known in a particular field or in total; facts and information.”

    Instead of the meaning of knowledge defined by Plato in the 5th century B.C.?

    ” In philosophy, the study of knowledge is called epistemology; the philosopher Plato famously defined knowledge as “justified true belief.” However, no single agreed upon definition of knowledge exists, though there are numerous theories to explain it.
    Knowledge acquisition involves complex cognitive processes: perception, communication, association and reasoning; while knowledge is also said to be related to the capacity of acknowledgment in human beings.[2]”

    Stephen asks – “When you think of knowledge, do you think of it as a solid, a liquid or a gas. How does your response to the states of matter question resonate with our current model of schooling? How do our current systems of education seem to view knowledge?

    What is the state of the matter?”

    Knowledge simply exists. It is neutral. It simply exists. However when knowledge is manipulated to become something that it is not, like Stephen’s implication that knowledge lies within the three states of matter – knowledge is no longer neutral, but takes on the shapes of the belief systems of the ones shaping knowledge to their own belief systems. Knowledge becomes corrupted. It is in this way that the public education model and its structure has allowed knowledge to become corrupted that has rendered the teaching of knowledge to a series of beliefs and truisms in keeping with the stakeholders of the public education system and their best interests.

    As fractions and long division was written out of the math curriculum by the education stakeholders as being no longer essential to learned to mastery in the elementary grades. The knowledge of fractions and long division and its knowledge is only known to less then 20 % of the senior high school students, which has resulted in the natural reduction of calculus and physics students of any high school. Students who do not have mastery in fractions and long division will not have the skills and abilities to understand calculus and physics knowledge. Most of the high school students are still stuck in Plato’s cave, still trying to determined what is knowledge, while the education stakeholders are intent in staying in Plato’s cave of the 5th century B.C., debating on what is the knowledge that is needed for the 21st century.

    Who does it benefit? The education stakeholders because in Plato’s cave – its not the content of the knowledge that matters, its the belief systems and the justified true beliefs that matters. Ergo, fractions and long division was written out of the elementary math curriculum as no longer being essential to the knowledge that 21st century students need to learned, as their counterparts in the 1960s.

    In the link authored by Wodek Szemberg, he presents a short list of what is needed for knowledge that should be acquired by high school students.

    ” So here is my short list of what I think are important areas of knowledge that ought to be part and parcel of high-school curriculum.

    1. The estimated age of this universe (13.8 billion years) and rudimentary understanding of cosmology
    2. Ability to chronologically place and explain the significance of 10 world-historical events/persons over the last 6 000 years
    3. Being able to identify at least 50% of world’s countries on a blind map
    4. History of money and the functioning modern economy
    5. A familiarity with the functioning of human genes and the brain
    6. Being able to deal with questions like: Why am I the way I am? Why do I like what I like? Why do I hold the opinions that I do?”

    Firmly entrenched in Plato’s dark and damp cave, in the same way this guy is a Forbes article entitled, The Single Best Idea For Reforming Education – “Given this context, I believe that the single most important idea for reform in K-12 education concerns a change in goal. The goal needs to shift from one of making a system that teaches children a curriculum more efficiently to one of making the system more effective by inspiring lifelong learning in students, so that they are able to have full and productive lives in a rapidly shifting economy.”

    In both cases, knowledge content don’t matter at all. Its the goals of the ones that are shaping knowledge clusters to their belief systems. Knowledge content becomes inconvenient truths that gets in the way of belief systems of the individuals who are in control of the knowledge clusters. In the public education system, it always comes at the expense of the students, their education and their futures as adults.

    To become a life-time learner or the six important areas of knowledge by Szemberg – what is never taken into account – the fundamental knowledge clusters, skills and abilities that are needed for students to become educated in the 21st century. Its pretty difficult for students to become educated, stuck in the damp cave of Plato’s, and more so when no one student has mastery of the basic foundation of knowledge to execute a reasonable reply to, to Szemberg’s number 6 condition – “Being able to deal with questions like: Why am I the way I am? Why do I like what I like? Why do I hold the opinions that I do?”

    Quite frankly, the educators should be prepared for the sassy comments of the students that will ultimately exposed the educators to the knowledge truths of the students, why content of knowledge should be taught, and never a set of knowledge beliefs based on Plato, let alone any other Epistemology theories much beloved by the educator set. The realities of the 21st century is a harsh task maker, compared to the realities of Plato’s cave. As humans we have progressed and in the area of educating our youth compared to Plato’s day. How about releasing the kids from the dank cave of Plato’s and the educators into the light of the 21st century, and all of its knowledge bases? Or will it be the determination to keep most of the students in the dark, by having them believed in faulty sets of knowledge of Plato’s cave where content of knowledge don’t matter?

    • John Myers /

      Conspiratorial theories aside, knowledge may have elements of all three.
      Solid: there may be things we all should know but this world is a far cry from Plato’s
      – we know more
      – some of it is cultural and contextual (the top ten historical events a Canadian should remember will be different from an Argentinian, an Australian, or a Korean
      – not just declarative (knowing that… ) but also procedural (knowing how to…)
      Knowledge is NOT neutral, cultural context and new evidence changes it, at least some of it. In history, for example, facts can be revised due to new evidence and changing interpretations will change the significance of a person or event; e.g., Louis Riel or Pierre Trudeau.
      That’s why we have procedural knowledge: the rules of thinking and evidence that keep us from lying to each other. This makes knowledge more like a

      Liquid- referring to the shifts noted above. Some things may be a solid TRUTH, but they are always subject to check.

      Gas- the “soft skills” involved with social and emotional learning (being civil on blogs and agreeing when necessary to disagree politely; ironically these are “soft’ because they are both challenging to develop in all of us (human history I offer as evidence) and resistant to measurement of solids through such vehicles as testing

  4. Nancy /

    Knowledge is neutral, until the moment cultural values and other values are imposed upon the neutrality of knowledge. In a paper, the attempt is made base on the assumption that knowledge is neutral, and can be used for the good or the bad. “Many people believe knowledge is neutral. Its goodness or badness is determined by the way it is used. The “neutral” view of knowledge, however, does not emphasize the important fact that the more we know the more likely we are to act and do good. In other words, knowledge can be used for both good and evil, however, if we employ the tools of statistics or probability we will easily show that knowledge is overwhelmingly “good”.

    By implying the knowledge is not neutral, one falls into the trap of relativism. Where truth becomes whatever the individual would like it to be. Not a good way to live one’s life, nor a good idea to instruct children that knowledge is whatever the individual values as knowledge. To ignored the law of gravity as having less value, then another chunk of knowledge that purports that the law of gravity will be rendered moot when human beings and life on this planet will no longer be restricted by the laws of gravity, is foolish. And yet, the curriculum of public education system have rendered chunks of knowledge by devaluing them as not as important as the newer sets of knowledge. The old knowledge is just as important today, since it provides the foundation for students to understand the newer sets of knowledge.

    All knowledge is cumulative, and what is far important for students to have is the correct sets of knowledge that allows them to become successful in their academic studies. Or as what many kids have said from the creation of schools, why bother to go to school, if one is not learning and acquiring knowledge?

    However within the public education system and its stakeholders, the sets of knowledge begins with the imposition of values that ends in destroying the neutrality of knowledge sets. Therefore one student will argued up and down that that learning of the basic arithmetic facts are no longer important, in acquiring a deeper understanding of advance mathematics. The day of reckoning for the student comes in the form of another student, who understood the importance of mastery, by telling the student, I help you when you learned all your times tables first. But why would I do that, when the teacher said its not important, and the other student who has mastered the times table, will say, because you will find learning fractions a whole lot easier or the conversion of percentages to decimals. The student learns the harsh lesson, that adults may lead the kids astray, and one will never get an answer why the student was not taught to mastery, a common set of math knowledge that would enabled all students to progress and achieved in math, a subject by its very nature is cumulative. Building upon a solid foundation of basic math facts in order to acquired the next sets of advance math knowledge, and yet within the math curriculum, some basic knowledge sets are devalued in favour of bringing in another set laced with values of the belief systems by the creators of the math curriculum. Why?

    The public education system and its stakeholders wants to keep the knowledge sets separate in their silos, and be open to interpretation and filtered through the lens of the pedagogy to rendered the neutral sets of knowledge moot, and laden with values – that the knowledge sets becomes whatever the values of the individual student has based on their personal set of knowledge, experiences and skills. Parents usually finds out when they are paying for private tutor lessons for their children, on common knowledge that should have been taught in the elementary grade but was not.

    In the current systems of education, knowledge content has less value than the values that are imposed unto the neutral sets of knowledge. My personal opinion, and more so when the public education stakeholders had declared that standard algorithms are deemed unsuitable to be taught to one and all. Then the educators dare to take marks off, when standard algorithms are employed by the students, and parents are discouraged not to teach their children the standard algorithms based on some latest theory that it would be bad for the education of the children. Relativism at its best, and the curse to mankind since its introduction sometime back in Plato’s cave of academia.

    “The first clear statement of relativism comes with the Sophist Protagoras, as quoted by Plato, “The way things appear to me, in that way they exist for me; and the way things appears to you, in that way they exist for you” (Theaetetus 152a). Thus, however I see things, that is actually true — for me. If you see things differently, then that is true — for you. There is no separate or objective truth apart from how each individual happens to see things. Consequently, Protagoras says that there is no such thing as falsehood. Unfortunately, this would make Protagoras’s own profession meaningless, since his business is to teach people how to persuade others of their own beliefs. It would be strange to tell others that what they believe is true but that they should accept what you say nevertheless. So Protagoras qualified his doctrine: while whatever anyone believes is true, things that some people believe may be better than what others believe.”

  5. The assertion that knowledge is neutral certainly supports the vision of “knowledge-as-a-solid”. If knowledge is ‘just there’ and nothing is added, amended or altered as it moves from person to person, culture to culture and generation to generation, then we may be on the right track in terms of public education. If knowledge is neutral, then education is simply a matter of transmission; our role as educators is to pass on that knowledge in the most efficient way possible. If this is so then the language of scaffolding, chunking and partitioning that knowledge base is right on and we can continue to tinker away until we find the most effective ways of affecting that transmission.


  6. John Myers /

    ” If knowledge is ‘just there’ and nothing is added, amended or altered as it moves from person to person, culture to culture and generation to generation, then we may be on the right track in terms of public education.”

    While that may be true in some cases and in some forms of knowledge such as language (math may be considered a language) It is not true for all forms of (declarative knowledge).
    Even in math, consider the history of the “0”.

    In other areas such as science science works by treating knowledge as tentative and subject to change based on evidence. Science’s quest to prove existing science wrong.

    Mind you, it is all too true that in many educational circles we have gone down the false path of relativism way too far. In some areas we can determine as a solid some knowledge- both declarative and procedural- being more “worthy” of acquisition based on standards set by experts to the domain of knowledge considered.

  7. I’m finding these thoughts, and this conversation, to be very interesting and enlightening. The nature of knowledge is, itself, not a neutral topic for discussion!

    I’m thinking a great deal these days about, on the what hand, what knowledge is and, on the other, how it becomes “embodied” on a personal and community level.

    So, is there a substantial difference between facts, information and knowledge. If so, what are the boundaries between each of these, and how do they connect with each other?

    Second, how does knowledge come to be. I think that this is what I was hinting at in my last comment. Is it ever possible just to “grab” knowledge and make it our own, or is there, in fact, a more complex set of processes at work.

    The context in which I’m thinking about this: the shift to blended/online learning. Is knowledge acquisition/development in need of the social context of the classroom (or some other social context) in order to be effective? What can schools continue to offer the learner that a connection to the internet cannot.

    I realize that I’m trying to simplify something that is very complex, but these are just some of the thoughts going through my mind.

    • john myers /

      and then there are “concepts” mental constructs of reality- not the same as r4eality but necessary to make sense of the world

      – which ones?
      – to what depth must these be understood by some of us/ all of us?

  8. John Myers /

    “So, is there a substantial difference between facts, information and knowledge. If so, what are the ”
    boundaries between each of these, and how do they connect with each other?”

    – Cognitive psychologists distinguish between declarative and procedural knowledge: defined above.
    – Some see knowledge “on tap” (E.D. Hirsh’s cultural literacy) as different from “understanding” (Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design is one of many ways to see this distinction)

    – As we work through some disciplines such as language and math, there are necessary building blocks for further knowledge and understanding; for example, I learn grammar through direct instruction though I learn how to have a simple conversation through role play and experience including debriefing

    “Second, how does knowledge come to be. I think that this is what I was hinting at in my last comment. Is it ever possible just to “grab” knowledge and make it our own, or is there, in fact, a more complex set of processes at work.”
    The history of mathematics illustrates the cultural influences of number system development; e.g. the Assyrian’s base 6, our base 10, computer programming base 2, the invention and changing use of “0”.

    Research into the use of “0” in grading and the controversies surrounding its use illustrate some of these complexities- and this over “nothing”.

  9. Nancy /

    Stephen asks – ” What can schools continue to offer the learner that a connection to the internet cannot.”

    I shall tell you a story – a most recent development in the local high school that that has taken blended learning to a place that no school should go to, let alone having an educator becoming the executioner for their own profession.

    Background information – The grade 12 English and Math educators had taught at the elementary levels, until this school year. Under the current government administration, there has been cuts to education in areas of student services, resources and now teachers for the new school year.

    The background information was needed for context, because I knew that my child’s final year along with her classmates would be a tough year. What I did not anticipate was blended learning on steroids. Nor did I ever dream that the senior high school students would react as they did. “No point in attending class, when the teacher will just direct you to a web site, and not bother to answered the questions of the student, or even teach the material in real time in the classroom.” Classes in Math and English has become a series of web sites, for student to learned and have their questions answered. As some students have pointed out, no one has to get out of bed, and one just has to reached for their laptop to looked up the assignments on the homework board. Why bother to have a teacher, when a parent volunteer could do the job. Or the more popular one, if I had wanted to register for online learning, I would have done that in the first place, but I elected for a teacher in the classroom setting. As a parent, I had to shake my head where knowledge is now a series of bar codes. To obtained this set of knowledge terms, one must have the correct app to access knowledge. Otherwise, students will have to still search on the web for their own set of terms. Apparently terms are not in the curriculum textbooks, and that is the new terms such as language, media, visual and dramatic. Some hard to locate, since I have been put in charge of this task.

    Essentially, blended learning on steroids is having students learning on their own, gathering the knowledge on their own with very little participation of the classroom teachers, instructing the students. No quick resources to go to, for the basic knowledge such as terms. And the kind of resources that could be found in one place, and according the curriculum standards of the province.

    So back to the question – – ” What can schools continue to offer the learner that a connection to the internet cannot.” The teachers should be the guardians of the knowledge or one day not far off in the future the profession – the educator will be downsized. To which I am seriously worried about because students in the K to 12 grades still need to have instruction on a daily basis on the knowledge sets, of teachers being the masters of the knowledge sets that will allow students to progress, achieved and learned in the academic subjects. The internet is a poor replacement for the teachers in the classrooms, and as my 17 year old, and as she did this noon hour, why even bother to attend class, when the English teacher is no longer teaching? Its expected for the students to learned the knowledge on their own. I thought to myself, the public English exam is going to be a killer. However, little birdies in the grapevine have indicated that there will be no more public exams and a whole lot of learning on the web, as my 17 year old did in the morning English class, looking up the public English exams on her i-phone, while the teacher recited a poem that no one in the class understood, and a teacher that is unwilling to explain the meaning of the poem. Its has now become the student’s job to seek out the meaning of the poem via through the internet.

    Perhaps it is time, for the educators to gathered and prepared for battle against the other education stakeholders who are intent to downsized the role of the educator, to mere cogs of directing students to knowledge sources rather then the purveyors of knowledge – masters of instruction via through the knowledge sets as it should be. I am just a parent, but parents should duly expect our teachers to be masters of the knowledge sets, and most certainly in senior English and Math subjects. However, to expect parents to picked up the ball for their children in senior high school classes, is like asking the parents to become surgeons, to operate on the kitchen table for minor operations such as the removal of the appendix. The downloading of education services to the parents has now reached a critical point, where knowledge taught is whatever the levels of the knowledge sets are for the parents. As a parent, I may be a crackerjack for elementary and junior high knowledge sets, but I am certainly do not process the knowledge sets required for senior high subjects. Its a recipe, that has long term implications of dumbing down society via through the knowledge sets.

    You may think I am exaggerating, but heed my warning or it will be at the peril of the educators, and in the end -society. Knowledge is the foundation of a society and the last bastion of defense to fight the rouges of men and women who would like to imposed tyranny upon mankind.

    A quote from Thomas Jefferson –
    “1786 August 13. (to George Wythe) “I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness…Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils [tyranny, oppression, etc.] and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.”[2]”

  10. Nancy /

    One outcome that arrives from knowledge gaps. The comments are of great interest.

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    thumbs up for the great info you’ve got here on this post. I will be returning to your web site for more soon.

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