April 12, 2011
What is the Difference Between Learning and Knowing?
This is the contemplative mood that I woke up in. It is good because I like thinking about deep questions like this, but it is frustrating because it takes a long time to come to good conclusions about deep questions. Big questions also create a drag on my work because I want to think about them and don't want to set them aside for other things. For me, big questions can only be wrangled with conversation.
So, I thought I would start that conversation here.
I know why I thinking about this question, although its appearance has many indirect, seemingly unrelated sources. I have a son who is spending the year studying in Germany. He didn't know any German when he left and he is learning German all day every day. He is speaking German better than his peers who have studied German for years in school, and who, if they took a test, would say they know German. I have been working my way through the April issue of Harvard Business Review and reading about failure and learning to fail, reflect, recover, and adjust as an essential skill. I have also been thinking of one of my sophomores in college who is fearless and jumps into to learn new things with abandon and relishes the opportunity. She recently landed a great summer internship not because she knew a lot but because she was so eager and willing to learn. My other sophomore recently texted me the teenage equivalent of "the more I learn, the less I know." She amazes me with her use of expletives and inventive spelling and I have to work through my judgments to see the profound nature of what she is expressing to me. I also lifted from my shelf a couple of days ago a wise book titled Know How by Ram Charan, one of my favorite thinkers. I love how he carves out this area of a large gap between knowing and doing. I first read his book six or seven years ago when I first started working with schools to pinpoint strategic directions for their futures and to quantify what it would take to get there. That we knew then, and know even better now, where we want to go, but have trouble with the doing to get there is a pretty consistent situation from the schools I see.
I believe the gap in know how is related to learning -- new learning, unlearning, relearning. This learning also involves suspending what we already know, or think we know, relinguishing what we know, and admitting that what we know is not as useful for the future as it has been in the past. So, our knowing and its supreme authority over our past successes is many times in the way. But it gets even trickier. Not all of our knowing is in the way, only some of our knowing. So, we have to revalidate all of our assumptions and knowledge to see what is truly useful as we march into the future and we will have to choose to replace some of it very intentionally with new operating assumptions, new goals, and new commitments. That's a lot of work? Yes, rethinking, reconsidering, revaliding, reviewing, revising, reconstituting -- all of it is a lot of work. And, I would call all of it learning.
Back to my question -- what is the difference between knowing and learning? Is there a difference that can inform our work?
I think of knowing as a more staid, steady, stable state. When I know something, it is for sure; it is so sure it is fact. When I know something, I trust it, I rely upon it, I trade and transact from it, and I do not question it. I think what I know can get old, tired, and dusty, outdated, but I am so into knowing it, and using it as part of my compass, that it feels active, solid, sure, and immutable. To know something, to reach that staid, steady, pinnacle is often a goal.
Learning to me seems to be completely different. Learning is an active state, an process of searching, digging, questioning, connecting, thinking, imagining, visualizing, trying, pitching, collecting, building, sharing, enhancing, coloring, synthesizing, communicating. Learning is unfinished. Knowing seems finished. Learning is constantly being renewed. Knowing is not regenerative in the same way; you can just know more. Learning to me encompasses more of a whole body experience where I can learn not only content but learn about the cause and effect of attitudes and actions. If I am more disciplined with my time and methodical, I learn that I can learn more. If I am brave and secure enough to ask questions, I learn that I can overcome fear and the benefit is learning the answer to my question as well as the feedback that overcoming fear helps me to learn. In the process of learning, I can learn from mistakes by reflecting on what I did and trying a different way. I learn resilience, perseverance, reflection, and recovery from that process. In knowing, we either know or you don't know.
So, I am not sure yet what I think about the difference between knowing and learning, but I still have a gut feeling that the difference is significant and that it would make a difference in our classrooms, our faculty and staff culture, and our school culture should we decide to be about knowing as our goals or about learning.
If you can add to this learning conversation, please do.