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What is the value of personal knowledge? Reflecting on 17 years as an Army spouse

What is the value of personal knowledge? Reflecting on 17 years as an Army spouse

Posted on: 19 February 2024

What is the value of personal knowledge?  I’ve been pondering this question for a couple of reasons.  Firstly because, with my partner’s retirement from the Army, last month marked the end of my family’s status as dependents of the military, and so I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned from that experience.  Secondly, because the grade 12s are finishing off their Theory of Knowledge essays, for which all of the six prescribed titles (PTs) have some relationship with the question of what knowledge is and who decides.  The two have become rather entwinned in my thoughts.

These 17 years as an Army spouse have given me an insight into a wide variety of educational establishments and learning environments (24 in total) from different standpoints, whilst throwing in the additional challenges of 11 house moves and my husband’s regular comings and goings that are a feature of a military career.  But all that ‘knowledge’, which very much seeps into my professional life, is not really the documented, official kind – I don’t have an institution, certificate or even a reference to validate it, it’s just part of my personal journey.  Is it valuable to anyone beyond myself?  Should I share it when it’s not created through any scientific method, is entirely subjective and not subject to vetting by any official expert custodians of knowledge in the field of education?  What are the implications of sharing (or not sharing) personal, subjective knowledge?

Okay, I’ll share.  Let me first give a bit of context: as a military family, if you want to keep together as a family unit, you end up being part of the ‘shadow Army’ of spouses and children who follow their serving soldier from posting (ie. job) to posting, sometimes around the world, sometimes just up and down a country’s major motorways.  As the spouse, you’re not in the Army, but you’re not not in the Army either; I suppose it’s akin to being a footballer’s wife but without the money.  To be honest, I’d never have imagined myself being either a footballer’s wife or an Army spouse, and certainly never for this length of time.  But looking back I can see that while things weren’t always rosy, I’ve absorbed from this experience a range of potentially useful life lessons.

Here’s a little of what I’ve learned.  I’ve learned that the teacher who welcomes a new student as an interesting individual is laying down the softest of red carpets over what is always a very bumpy first few weeks.  Of those teachers, I’ve found that the ones that go a step further and check in personally with the family in those early weeks have enabled me to better support my children: for a newly arrived family the teacher is often the only adult with whom the primary caregiver has had a meaningful conversation – a conversation that goes beyond superficial niceties – all day.

That conversation can be the difference between feeling overwhelmed, invisible and very alone, and having the strength to be the stabilizing rock for everyone else.  That said, I’ve also realised that the schools that appear to be less proactive in their support of their new students are sometimes the ones who are demonstrating the patience needed to allow kids to find their feet in this new environment, while the ones which throw in well-intentioned support groups are sometimes distracting from that process.  But perhaps most importantly, as a teacher myself, I’m very aware of the need to tread carefully when making judgements.   Children can manifest their anxieties in the strangest of ways: a usually reliable and easy-going child can suddenly start telling outrageous lies to his friends; others never cry but seem to do pretty much the opposite of what you’d expect an upset child to do, seeming to be manically happy at the points when they’re probably most sad.  I’ve learned that context is everything, for everyone.

So I’ve shared a few of my nuggets of personal knowledge; they’re valuable to me, perhaps they’re interesting for a few others.  But what would it really mean ‘to value personal knowledge’?  As a society we mostly value what can be measured, even when what’s being measured creaks under the burden of an assessment rubric.  Grades, scores, certificates, financially-rewarded activities, with perhaps a nod to skills developed in the ‘Hobbies’ section of a CV.  I’m increasingly of the opinion that the implications of this are huge: just as, when thinking about TOK essay PT 1 (Is subjectivity overly celebrated in the Arts but unfairly condemned in history?), if we demand high levels of objectivity in the sources used to explore the past we shut out minority voices, so in modern society we lose those whose experiences have not been objectively verified.  We lose the voice of the refugee whose education was disrupted by war, the kid from the less wealthy background whose family couldn’t afford a university education, the person of colour whose journey is one of relentless barriers created by society’s biases, the young parent…

I think things are moving in the right direction.  The Internet has opened up so many avenues for voices to be heard without having to navigate traditional custodians of knowledge.  Initiatives like the Global Citizens Diploma seek both to highlight the story behind the person and to broaden that story beyond a set of numbers.  The IB’s pilot project in UWC Atlantic College gives recognition to a much wider range of qualities than its traditionally academic DP courses allow for.  But while we wait for the impact of those initiatives to really flourish, perhaps the most important thing, particularly in the workplace, is to value our own personal knowledge – even when it’s gained from ‘non accredited’ sources – and to allow it to give us the courage and confidence to take on those roles where it is often undervalued but so critical.

Nicola Edger is the subject lead for Theory of Knowledge, Global Perspectives and Approaches to Learning, as well as a part of the careers counselling team, at Leipzig International School.  Originally from the UK, she’s taught English and EAL in secondary schools, sixth form colleges, adult education centres and a German university, as well as working as a careers mentor for a higher education outreach project.