Published on 2012/07/25

Universal Classification of Knowledge in Education and Training

Higher education currently exists in an industrial, conveyer belt model. Adopting an approach to education that teaches students to learn how to learn would eliminate the artificial uniqueness of the higher education system. Photo by Jojje11.

Conventional education is reflective of an industrial model based on standardization and competitiveness where intellectual diversity is the premise for selecting workers for various parts of the economy. Because such a model is based on an erroneous view of human potential, it is very political, and artificial uniqueness is required to sustain it.

It is this artificial uniqueness that creates all the problems for information-based education and training which transcends politics. People can no longer be controlled by restricting what they can know. Our schools, colleges and universities exist to feed a model of society that is redundant and we wonder why so many people are falling through the cracks. But can the system change itself by relinquishing the very foundation on which it is built? It is a dilemma.

That is the reality that we must confront if we want to change education for the better. But we can fix the problem by standardizing the way we learn, not by standardizing what we learn. We need to unify the structure of knowledge and the process of learning and get away from standardized content as the driving force of education. We can still have some standardized content for initial certification purposes, but knowledge is constantly changing and in order to keep up with it we must focus first on how we know rather than what we know. Educational content will always be a variable and if we organize from a content perspective, we will always have artificial uniqueness.

In my article “Affective Learning Projects”, I described how to use the nine elements of the learning process as reference points for developing learning projects. If we also use this reference system to organize knowledge, then we will have a standard way of describing knowledge in terms of the way we use it. While there are many ways to describe a given project, the general idea and the reference points can always be the same. We do not need to standardize the content itself, just the general perspective and the process of learning.

We need uniqueness at the learning level, but we do not need it at the classification level. This is why meaningful standardization of content can never happen, but standardization of process can. If we stand back far enough, we can see the elements of the learning process that we all have in common – accessing information, valuing knowledge, expressing ideas, building language, gaining perspective, garnering attitude, planning strategies, manipulating resources, and assessing quality. We can use those standard reference points for designing curriculum, for teaching and for learning. We can also use them to classify knowledge and provide a universal reference system for governance. This is the foundation for the building and maintenance of affective learning e-schools.


The detail of human knowledge is beyond comprehension and it is proliferating exponentially. We can’t know everything, and we all want to know things in our own way. The content of each mind is unique. Standardization at this level, if it was possible, is counterproductive to human nature.


The human brain is a consistently functioning organ of our bodies just like all the other organs and it functions in the same way for everyone. We do not understand this function as well as we understand other organs, but we know that it is a process of neuron development that reflects what is happening around us through some form of energy exchange. I generalize this process from a learning point of view using the nine elements described above.


We also know that the brain has a layered cortex and it is believed that each layer of the cortex plays a role in its organization of knowledge. Again we do not fully understand it, but each layer is likely responsible for levels of hierarchical thinking. I describe this as the sensing level, the learning level, the using level, the organizing level, the personalizing level, and the proliferation level. In terms of knowledge, this is reflected as sensory energy, incremental stages of development, services, specializations, sectors and styles. This hierarchy is illustrated in the article “Teaching as Knowledge Management”.

Systems Thinking

In addition to process and structure, our brains function systematically. Systems thinking enhances language and enables us to understand complex ideas. In effect, our brains create mental models that provide the frameworks (affective learning systems) through which we live our lives.


If we are ever going to have high quality education systems that meet the needs of everyone, we have to govern it from the perspective of the way the brain processes information. While knowledge about knowledge is in its infancy, we must recognize that it is there and begin to use it. As we do, we will learn more and more and feel confident in building policy around it.

Equality, Efficiency and Effectiveness

When we use affective learning systems to organize knowledge, the advantages are immediately evident. We start looking at everyone as having enormous capacity for learning and we get away from competitive comparison. It becomes redundant. The efficiency and effectiveness of teaching and learning is not seen as a function of time on task, but more in terms of the quality of the learning experience.


From an administrative perspective, we will be able to ascertain why learning is not happening and make interventions to correct the situation. Faddish cycles and artificial uniqueness become redundant. We will be able to rationalize our policy, move ahead, and fix our mistakes as we go, always improving the quality of education through the continuous improvement of affective learning e-schools. Of course, it will also be much easier to direct funding where it is needed the most.


Affective learning e-schools will enable teachers to become true professionals with a common mental model for educating. The advantages of this are mind boggling in terms of how teachers will influence their students and unlock true potential that all students possess. Imagine a world where everyone are confident in teachers who are allowed to make education work unrestricted by the artificial barriers put in place to control the educating process.


Affective learning e-schools will provide a common approach to learning and enable learners to learn how to learn. People will lose the uncertainty that we now associate with learning and develop the confidence that they can learn whatever they want without being compared to others. Intellectual diversity will be seen as a positive quality and valued more than intellectual competitiveness.

This is the way all education should be especially in colleges and universities. It is only when we begin to respect the infinite abilities that each and every one of us possesses will we have a truly understanding society respectful of everybody, working together for the benefit of all. The structure of knowledge described in the article “Teaching as Knowledge Management” is a universal classification system that can be used to eliminate artificial uniqueness and achieve this necessary revolution in education and training.

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Readers Comments

Randy Baker 2012/07/26 at 2:34 am

Mr. Smith,

I’m very impressed by your work. I suspect, like many others who have visited your site, I was directed via the post you made in the Linked In discussion about “Do you think it’s time to change our over 200 year old methods of teaching?” Your “model” (it’s really more than that) transcends bashing the paradigm as some have done or arguing whether it’s even a valid question and potentially compels us to move forward rather than wallow is what is. Bravo!

While I question a few of your assumptions and am unclear about others I essentially agree with most of what you’ve advanced here.

My work is almost entirely in the field of corporate learning but there are more rather than fewer parallels than many might think. (I wish I had a dollar for every corporate university I helped to design — I could buy a nice dinner!) I’m fortunate to be married to a successful university professor in the Educations Studies department at UCSD and our many discussions have afforded me a unique opportunity to “compare and contrast” higher v. corporate learning. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander IMHO.

I have a dog in this fight. After scoping, designing, implementing, testing (rinse and repeat) over $25M “worth” of mainly leadership development programs I finally had to face the ugly truth that most of what I had sold was a fancy form of sheep dip/edutainment with no real lasting results (but oh did we garner great reviews!). I set out to change that and joined a group of four like-minded individuals about two years ago. Our resultant process/process essentially (I think) reflects a similar emphasis around uniqueness at the learning level. We look to make some serious headway towards delivering on the promise of a “curriculum for one” and have an underlying framework that effectively honors several of your key assumptions.

Hence my note. I’m keen to see where you go with this and to the extent you’re interested, happy to discuss with you how Affective Learning may scale (or simply link) to corporate education.

Thank you, I wish you great success with this.

Randy Baker

Walter Smith 2012/08/01 at 9:43 pm

Randy, I have used this methodology to design education and training programs in a college setting for 16 years. This involved extensive collaboration with business and industry. I have used it to design training programs directly for industry. And I have used it in the boardroom for organizational learning and development. The response has always been nothing short of exciting. Although my career has been mostly in the field of public education, I would certainly be interested in discussing greater use of the methodology in the corporate world. You can contact me through LinkedIn and we can take it from there.

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