Treasure Box of Knowledge

My teacher training in Canada followed a “student-centred” approach to education. I use many aspects of this approach in my teaching practice and see it as highly important. That said, there were some explanations for the philosophy behind it that I always thought were completely ridiculous. For example, one of my professors taught that knowledge was already inside of students; the job of a teacher is a facilitator that leads them on a journey of self-discovery. As important as self-discovery can be, I am fairly convinced that the most important things I have ever learned came from sources outside of myself.

While most of my career has been in relatively traditional high-school settings, I took a break for a year and a half to work with an NGO in a remote rural part of Central Asia. My role included teaching and facilitating apprenticeships for young men in areas of vocational training – mostly welding and mechanics.

In this setting I experienced the other end of the spectrum when it comes to educational philosophy. While we did our best to match each of our apprentices with an employer, and many employers were very good, some did their best to keep the apprentices from learning too much.

I taught afternoon classes to try to fill the gaps. Adopting a student-centred approach, I asked the boys what they were learning and what else they would like to learn. Many wanted to learn to drive as their employers would not trust them to drive the vehicles they worked on. I took them out in an old Toyota Land Cruiser and taught them the basics. Others complained that their employers would not let them work on or even see the inside of a car’s gearbox so I bought an old transmission and helped them take it apart. I even had to move one of the boys to a different employer because his did so little to help him learn.

Somewhat baffled, I asked a local co-worker if he had any insights to help me understand the situation. He explained the prevailing educational philosophy with a story:

“Many years ago now the first Kamaz trucks (six-wheel drive Russia- made transport vehicles) came to our village. Some young men approached the drivers and asked if they would teach them to drive. The drivers replied that the art of driving takes a minimum of seven years to learn, plus the people from your village are not smart enough.”


Essentially many in the area viewed education as a treasure box of knowledge that gives economic benefit. Those with knowledge – teachers or skilled tradespeople – have a key to that box. When you teach you may give your students access to some of what is in the box, but you are always careful not to give away too much. Otherwise your student might surpass you and/or break your monopoly on the knowledge and the benefits it brings.


7 thoughts on “Treasure Box of Knowledge

  1. George Foster, an American anthropologist, wrote an article years ago entitled The limited good. You can easily find it on the internet. In it he suggested that one way of understanding peasant behavior was by realizing that in small villages, wealth was considered bounded. There was only so much and if you prospered, it has to be at some else’s expense. This also helped explain peasant stories of pots of gold and buried treasures.

    You might enjoy it, because your story suggests a scenario with a perception of bounded knowledge, and though you might not lose knowledge if someone else gained it, you lost an edge as people around you learned.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Fascinating article, thank you both for sharing. I can’t remember where I have come across the term “limited good” before, but I had not read this article. Now I wish I had read it before embarking on the project I wrote this post about.


  2. 🙂 – no I was an electronics/software engineer and project manager. But I certainly recognise the traits of people being reluctant to provide information or to train others for fear of losing authority or maybe even their job. However, unlike agriculture, engineering fields change so much, so quickly that it’s a futile approach because the “secret information” soon becomes out of date.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Unfortunately this approach to education isn’t limited to peasant enclosures. I’ve seen the very same in large metropolitan areas, in academic settings, most especially in countries where access to higher education is very limited, and people with such credentials had to travel abroad to obtain it. When they return to their countries to share their new found wealth, they were greeted with shut doors and obstacles upon obstacles, because the existing faculty feared their tenure and reputation. As these countries open up and more of their citizens get to travel and decide to return, this is slowly eroding too, but it’ll take decades before the barriers can be completely lifted.

    Liked by 2 people

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