Personal and Shared Knowledge



What is the difference between personal and shared knowledge?

The distinction between personal and shared knowledge is a way of recognising the difference between the knowledge that we possess as individuals and the knowledge that we possess as a group, community or society. The difference is best captured by the diagram below which compares the knowledge that a number of different individuals might have about, for example, butterflies.



Here we can see that Person 1 knows very little of the shared knowledge about butterflies and possesses only a small amount of the knowledge that is ‘available’ in this field in general. In contrast, Person 3, the professional entomologist knows much more of the ‘available’ knowledge about butterflies, hence her circle is bigger that Person 1’s. Interestingly, however, her knowledge of butterflies is not any more personal than that of Person 1, even though she has had much more contact with them. This is because most of her experience with butterflies has been under experimental conditions, often carried out in teams and, furthermore, the vast majority of this experience been turned into scientific knowledge that has been shared with the rest of her knowledge community in published journals. Person 2, who is a student of the professional entomologist, is somewhere in between the two – he knows more than Person 1 because he studies the subject and, as we would expect, some of his shared knowledge overlaps with that of his professor. Obviously, however, the overlap between the personal and the shared knowledge will vary depending on the individual in question, the community that this knowledge is to be shared with and the topic.



Why have the IB recently introduced this distinction?

The answer to this seems to be that the IB is trying to make it clear that in most situations the vast majority of our knowledge is neither personal nor individual, it’s actually shared with the rest of our knowledge community. Too often we take the easy way out of a debate and say that what is ‘true’ for you might not be ‘true’ for me and that we can both have our own ‘truths’ and that’s all right. However, that’s clearly an over-simplification because there are many situations where that kind of compromise doesn’t apply – even in subjective areas like the arts it seems that there can be interpretations that are more convincing and thus ‘better’ than others and very few people would seriously argue in ethics that cold blooded murder is fine. As such there are good reasons to believe that a lot of our knowledge, even in subjects like these, is shared.


As such, these diagrams are meant to suggest that although there are times when knowledge really is personal (perhaps I really am the only person to truly know how I feel when I hear Beethoven’s midnight sonata) this is really an exception rather than the rule and we have to bear in mind that much of our knowledge is generated in conjunction with others: the pursuit of knowledge is a communal undertaking


Beyond this, the diagrams seem to be designed to make us think about this personal / shared distinction in as sophisticated a way possible as they suggest that there an infinite variety of different relationships possible between the individual knower and his / her knowledge community. The exact nature of the relationship will depend on the topic in question, the educational experience of the individual, the methods used by that individual to acquire the knowledge in question … etc.



How should I use this in my assessments?

As with anything, the real answer is ‘only when it’s relevant.’ So keep your eyes open for situations in which this distinction between the personal and the shared might apply to the topic or question that you are exploring … however, one potentially effective way of including this distinction between the personal and the shared is as a way of exploring different perspectives on the same knowledge question. For example, if you are answering a question about whether progress is possible in the arts then it might be interesting to compare the personal with the shared / communal perspective on this question. From a personal perspective it seems clear to me that I am capable of making progress in my own individual understanding of the arts and in my skill as an artist but it’s not as clear that the entire global community of artists who already have access to all of the skills and techniques of art from throughout history, can progress in quite the same way. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the tools that the community have at the disposal in their pursuit of knowledge are not necessarily the same as those that the individual has at his / her disposal.