Information ≠ Knowledge

Last week I attended a webinar about the ethics of childbirth. The presenter, sociologist Raymond De Vries, noted that choice is central to each of the ethical questions surrounding birth and then made the point that the problem with choice is that information does not equal knowledge. (He also mentioned the “ritual” of informed consent.) In the context of the webinar, the point was being made about ethical issues of prenatal testing, birth planning, and asking women to make decisions while in labor, but I think it has broader implications for our work as childbirth educators as well. We spend a lot of time informing and educating women about their choices surrounding birth and are often then surprised that this apparent information does not translate into experience once in the birth room. Obviously, this is partially because the birth room is a context impacted by a large number of social, cultural, psychological, and environmental factors, but I believe it is also because with all of our information we still haven’t managed to help parents develop knowledge and the two are not the same. Parents are often not able to recall or to mobilize information resources while actually embroiled in the birth experience. They need an inner knowing and inner resources to draw on for coping.

While I have known this for a long time, I still find it difficult to translate my conviction into practice. How do people develop knowledge about an experience that is ultimately unknowable until they are in it?

I do think that within the field of childbirth education, Birthing from Within is the method that most attempts to address this issue and I really value these two quotes from Pam England:

“A knowledgeable childbirth teacher can inform mothers about birth, physiology, hospital policies and technology. But that kind of information doesn’t touch what a mother actually experiences IN labor, or what she needs to know as a mother (not a patient) in this rite of passage.”

“While all of your (birth) planning may spin a cocoon of security, in actuality, the course of your labor is unknowable…your critical task is to prepare for a birth that has NO script.”

Personally, though, even with the practices and ideas offered by wonderful resources like Birthing from Within, I find I am still working on the actual execution of the how in my classes of translating information into knowledge…

Edited to add…I’m working on resolving this discrepancy through my new plan to offer birth workshops as part of a birth network, rather than as an independent educator.

16 thoughts on “Information ≠ Knowledge

  1. I agree, this is tough. I think it is one reason why having a doula is helpful. Someone to remind you of what you know and more importantly to support you in whatever choices you make along the way.

    • Most excellent point, Sheridan! Couples often expect dads to fulfill that role (the reminder/rememberer of what was learned), not fully realizing that the birth experience is a fatherbirth experience as well!

  2. I signed on to do this webinar too, but was asked to do a workshop and could not attend. Thank you for posting this. Really, that’s the key. It’s not knowing all this stuff, it is always if you can apply. And then there is the question of what is applicable. I really wish I could listen to audio of this discussion. Thanks again for the post.

  3. This post has me thinking…
    For me, having the information gave me courage until I was able to transfer it to knowledge through experience. Now my experience can serve to inform others before they have experience of their own. I think on some level it always comes down to the personal interactions we have in order to gain the right to show the way.

    As a metaphor, I can inform my child about the risks inherent in crossing the street, but children always want to experience things for themselves. However, because he has relationship with me, he can trust my counsel and not have to learn the hard way.

    In giving birth information, we are limited by the degree to which the ‘student’ trusts us.

    (Molly, this is my first visit to your site, linked off of CAPPA. Nice to read your thoughts!)

    • Thanks for commenting, Jen! 🙂 I think we also limited by the degree to which the birth environment supports the optimal/healthy/normal births that we prepare women for–and that they “deserve,” but can’t necessarily “expect” in many settings. It is unreasonable to expect women and their partners to be having to defend themselves and stand up for their “rights” in a birth setting and yet, that is often what would actually be necessary for them to transfer their in-class information into experience 😦

      I keep thinking about this myself–trying to figure how I, personally, transferred information into *knowing* (because, boy, did I cram in the information when I was pregnant for the first time!) and what I keep returning to is that the environment matters so much–that if hadn’t chosen the birth setting that I did, I have no idea how the birth would have played out/how I would have transferred/applied the information…

  4. I think this is true about a great many things.
    Having the information about something doesn’t necissarily change minds, how paradoxal it might seem. Often people are just happy to swaddle along the same lines just because that’s how they know it was done

    • Yes, definitely. I teach a community organizing class and one of the points I make is that if “education” was all that was needed to create change, we’d be on easy street. It is a VERY common response to any kind of problem/action planning–“people just need to be educated” or “we need to provide education” or “people need more education about this issue,” etc., etc. Well, guess what, if education was all that was needed, we’d be seeing change as soon as the education was provided! We’re not. So what else do we need?

      • Pff, If we only knew…
        I think maybe acquiring new knowledge means rejecting the things you might have held true before. Not everyone is willing to do this just as easily.
        i think it needs an open mind, a readiness to accept information, to which not everyone is as easily prepared.
        And even if this readiness is there, if the info is accepted, it needs to be applied. And in birth, as you well described, people are on unknown grounds. So even if the knowledge is acquired, it is easy to be manhandled and misguided, even against your will.

        I think what is most important is to educate care providers, to have them treat their patients as humans, to give them options, not to just order them around

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