Backward Brain Bicycle: memory and knowing how

(by Eileen Dombrowski) “Knowledge”. “Understanding”. “Truth”.  Your students might want to argue with the way Destin Sandlin uses the terms — and so will you — as he struggles to learn how to ride what he calls the Backwards Brain Bicycle. This video is likely to provoke ripples of laughter and to animate discussion on “knowing how” and memory as a way of knowing.  Not a bad lead-up to knowledge questions!

  • Other than riding a bicycle, what skills do you have yourself that you  use without seeming to think about them?  Do you seem to recall them in a different way from how you remember factual information?  Knowledge questions: Does memory as a way of knowing operate differently for different kinds of things we learn and know?
  • Knowledge questions:  What is the difference between knowing information and knowing how to do things?  How do the two differ, and how do they work together in different areas of knowledge?  In what ways does it help us to draw such distinctions in terminology and give definitions?
  • Devlin Sandlin makes a point that knowledge is not the same thing as understanding, and applies that distinction to knowing how to ride a bicycle.  Would you use the term “understanding” as he does, to embrace a grasp that goes beyond conscious awareness?  How else, and perhaps differently, might you use the term? Knowledge questions:  What is the difference between knowledge and understanding?  Does the distinction show up in different ways in reference to mastery of ideas, mastery of intellectual skills,  and mastery of physical skills
  • What does Devlin Sandlin mean when he concludes that “truth is truth” and that we are all looking at the world with a bias whether we think we are or not?  There is a huge gap between the demonstration of riding a “backward bicycle” and this sweeping conclusion, to which he brings additional background not introduced in this video.  What are “neural pathways” and “cognitive biases” to which he briefly refers?  Knowledge question:  To what extent are we all inclined by our brains and upbringing to respond to the world in particular ways?  (Actually, this question is so huge that you would probably want to touch it only lightly in connection with this non-academic bicycle video — but it’s worth touching lightly repeatedly all the way through the course.)

I wouldn’t spend a lot of time in class on this video, but would use it to bring a class together and to sound again (as we do, again and again!) some of the ongoing knowledge questions of the course.


Destin Sandlin. “The Backwards Brain Bicycle — Smarter Every Day 133”

Eileen Dombrowski, Lena Rotenberg, and Mimi Bick. Theory of Knowledge Course Companion (in cooperation with the IB). Oxford University Press, 2013.  See especially chapter 2 “Gaining Knowledge” and chapter 6  “Memory as a Way of Knowing”.


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