Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Knowing vs. Understanding vs. Applying

The focus of traditional education has mostly been on knowledge. The focus has been on learning more information. But now we have more information available to us than ever before. And the amount of information out there is growing exponentially. 

And this rapidly growing body of information is readily available. We can access it at any time in any place at the tip of our fingers with a connected device. Our tools have transformed our experience. So while learning information still has some value, it's not as valuable as it once was.

So what about teaching for understanding? That raises the bar a little I think. While teaching for knowing is about accumulating more information, teaching for understanding is about making sense of that information and seeing how the pieces fit together. It's recognizing the context of the information, why the information is important, and how the information might be applied.

Teaching for understanding is a deeper type of learning. It involves critical thinking, making personal connections, and being able to have discussions and make arguments about the information. But it's not actually applying the information.

For me, that's the true test of learning. How can you apply what you know? How are you applying your learning? The most important thing for our students is what they are able to do. Application is seeing knowledge and understanding in action. 

When we talk about students being ready for life, it's about them being able to do things to contribute and make a difference. 

Doing makes the difference.

I think traditional education has mostly assumed that students would be able to take their knowledge and understanding and apply it as needed. But we know that's not the case. Students are often not able to transfer their knowledge or understanding. They often don't even see the relevance of their knowledge or understanding because they haven't done anything with it. 

And that's the reason why many people find the best learning after their formal education has ended. 

I'm guessing most educators can relate to this very well. To train to be a teacher you go to college and you expand your knowledge and understanding of the teaching profession. Mostly you learn theoretical concepts or discuss various scenarios or established principles in a way that is isolated from actual practice. You take the quizzes. You take the tests. And you write the papers.

And then, you enter your student teaching and the application begins. And you quickly learn that much of what you learned in your coursework is very different from what you learn in actual practice. At least that's how it was for me. There seemed to be a very big disconnect.

To further prove this point, have you ever known someone who aced all of the classes in college to become a teacher, but then struggled mightily to succeed in the classroom? The skills they needed to succeed on the quizzes, tests, and papers in college weren't the same ones needed to succeed in an actual classroom.

After student teaching, your first full year in the profession is still like a crash course. For several years, you continue feeling a little like a beginner but your learning is consistently reaching new levels. The learning from actual practice was actually far more helpful than the learning from education classes.

So all of this brings me to suggest a different way of learning in school, a way that I believe is more effective than starting with knowing and understanding. Let's start with doing. Let's start with solving and creating and applying. 

The student will still need to learn the information and understand the information. But they will see the relevance of the knowing and understanding, because they will need it to succeed in the application of what they are doing. 

They will learn by doing.

And they will be more curious, more engaged, and more empowered because they will have to decide what information and concepts they need to successfully complete the task. They will see how the learning matters and how it makes a difference beyond the classroom. Through this process, they will need lots of guidance and feedback from the teacher, a learning expert. 

That's the role of the modern teacher, to skillfully design learning experiences that help students know more, understand more, and most importantly, do more.

The best learning requires students in action.

What am I missing here? Can we flip the script and get better results? Can we start with the project, or the problem, or the application and learn the content through the process? How are you doing this in your school? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.


  1. Your insight is right on. I have often wondered if my ability to do better in math and its advanced courses would have made more impact on me if I was able to incorporate math concepts into a practical exercise or activity that made sense to me (i.e. cooking). People learn best when they learn what is relevant to them. I have felt for a long time that our educational system has missed its mark and provides a huge injustice to our students. Glad to have found your post. I will make an effort to read more things you have written. Thank you for your insight.

  2. Formal education strongly favors knowledge acquisition. People who can quickly memorize have that skill strongly reinforced, possibly to the detriment of developing understanding and application skills. Our current education system is definitely weak on developing the understanding and application skills. Lots of potential for improvement!