Knowledge in creative problem solving

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This text is part of: "I would never send my kids to school" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)

Introduction: The Value of Knowledge

Knowledge has earned a deservedly good reputation in our culture. We know that knowledge is good and useful in life. However, there is also a significant value to the act of learning itself. Freshly gained knowledge is qualitatively very different from well-established and durable knowledge. For effective problem solving, we need both.

Stable old knowledge and fresh new knowledge are both essential in effective problem solving. Both contribute to the learn drive, creativity, and a happy mindset

Old Knowledge vs. New Knowledge

In the process of learning and problem solving, there is a huge difference between stable knowledge and new knowledge:

Stable knowledge is characterized by high stability. It is not easily forgotten.

New knowledge is characterized by high retrievability. It is fresh, vulnerable and plastic. New knowledge boosts creativity by re-routing the thinking process away from well-established pathways of stable knowledge. New knowledge boosts the learn drive by providing new incomplete and imperfectly coherent areas of exploration. This explains why learn drive and creativity exist in a mutual positive feedback. In Cattell's terminology, stable knowledge might be seen as a framework for crystallized intelligence, however, new knowledge significantly adds to the problem solving power, which Cattell would in part include in fluid intelligence.

Old and new knowledge in creative problem solving
Old and new knowledge in creative problem solving

Figure: Creative problem solving requires (1) vast expert knowledge of high stability, and (2) rich new knowledge of high retrievability. Vast stable knowledge makes it easy to solve algorithmic problems. Those problems can be solved at low energy expenditure with the help of fast thinking. Problems that require "thinking out of the box" rely on creativity, i.e. association of remote ideas. Creativity and learn drive are powered by "hungry knowledge", i.e. fresh knowledge that can easily be molded and generalized via forgetting. This plasticity provides for good pattern matching in new learning and in creative problem solving

From a free child to an expert

Here are the four combinations of low and high reservoirs of stable and new knowledge:

  • pupil: passive learning at school fails to meet the criteria of free learning. Schools stand in violation of the Fundamental law of learning. Through learned helplessness, children accept the status quo and then tolerate low inflow of new knowledge. Their stable knowledge is low. New knowledge is incoherent. Learn drive is low. Creativity is negligible.
  • free child: in free learning, stable knowledge may be low, but the flow of new knowledge powered by the learn drive is incessant. This feeds the learn drive in a positive feedback loop. Low levels of stable knowledge make it easy to find inexhaustible resources of new knowledge worth learning. Creativity is high
  • expert: after years of learning, vast expert knowledge becomes well-established, and makes it easy to solve algorithmic problems within the area of expertise. This process is effortless. However, a low inflow of new knowledge may reduce the learn drive. This is how expertise may negatively affect curiosity and further exploration
  • creative expert: a creative expert sports vast stable knowledge for fast problem solving. However, he also keeps exploring new areas of knowledge in search of generalizations and patterns that can enhance their expertise or general knowledge. Creative experts are characterized by a high level of hunger for new knowledge. They also find it easier to explore new areas, expand their expertise or creatively supplement their current area of knowledge. Creative experts are best equipped for solving tough problems that require a great deal of divergent thinking out of the box. They are less limited by their own expertise and less prone to routine thinking.

Knowledge of high retrievability is easily activated, which makes it play the role of an attractor. Metaphorically speaking, new knowledge is "hungry" as it attracts new learning and new ideas.

Incremental learning

There is also a subset of knowledge that is characterized by high stability and high retrievability. Such pairing is for example a norm in spaced repetition after a review. This knowledge is stable, but can also power the learn drive and creativity. It has been reactivated and brought back to a high retrievability level. Some of the pleasure of judicious spaced repetition comes from knowing (see: Pleasure of knowing). However, even more pleasure comes from the associative power of refreshed knowledge which can creatively contribute new ideas in the learning process. This is particularly noticeable in incremental reading, where new knowledge (reading) is combined with old knowledge (review) to produce new qualities (creativity). The boost to creativity and creative learning is one of the key advantages of incremental reading.

The creative power of incremental reading rests in part on the randomized interleaving of new knowledge with old knowledge

Adulthood: The Value of Learning

The table below explains a few typical combinations of old and new knowledge, their extent, and the impact on creative problem solving. Stable knowledge keeps growing in the course of learning. New knowledge is essential for the learn drive and creativity. New knowledge is effectively established only in the course of free learning. Coercive learning based on a curriculum provides little inflow of new well-matched knowledge. This results in the loss of learn drive and limited creativity, and an unhappy mind is produced via learned helplessness.

An average adult with average knowledge who is subjected to the hassles of modern-day life is rarely able to effectively expand their stable knowledge resources. The routine of daily chores tends to establish an average area of expertise related to work and family life. New knowledge and creativity are low. Moreover, stress and sleep deprivation may lead to network overload that gradually undermines cognitive capacity. Loss of learn drive exposes individuals to an increased risk of depression. If cognitive decline enters a positive feedback loop, an Alzheimer's pathology may develop.

- Pupil Free child Adult Expert Creative expert
Stable knowledge low low modest high high
New knowledge low high low modest high
Learn drive low high vestigial modest high
Creativity low high vestigial modest out of this world
Problem solving vestigial limited poor expertly perfect
Overload modest none high none none

Genesis of mythology

The interplay of old knowledge with new knowledge explains why it is very difficult to break old myths and paradigms. See: Myths are easy to swallow and hard to kill. In that text I show that a myth-infected granny is like a stable expert, while a child is like a pupil with insufficient knowledge and unstable memory. They are both vulnerable to false beliefs for entirely different reasons.