The Difference Between Knowing and Learning

The day after we took our daughter out of kindergarten to begin the homeschooling experiment that became the unschooling adventure that became the best possible lives the members of our family could ever have, I began to seek out educational philosophies, theories, and practices. Bloom’s Taxonomy struck a chord with me: at age six, I could already see the many ways in which my child was past the first level, simple Knowledge.

An interesting note: Since my last Internet search for the taxonomy, it has been updated to list the levels as verbs instead of nouns. Knowledge, therefore, is now Remembering. The link in the paragraph above includes both versions of the taxonomy. From this point on, I will refer to the new version.

Knowledge, or remembering, is the first step in learning because it gives us the building blocks we will use to proceed to higher levels. One must be able to count before one can do arithmetic operations. One must know the names of the colors before one can learn about how colors are used, either artistically or metaphorically.

At age six, Stephanie (like most six-year-old children) was also quite proficient in the second level of Bloom’s Taxonomy: Understanding. Also known as that favorite school-y word “comprehension,” understanding is the ability to explain what one remembers, or has knowledge of. Extremely young children can do this.

Schools, it seemed to me, focused almost exclusively on remembering and understanding—two things that, based on my personal experience, a child could do just fine without any exposure to school. The real meat of Bloom’s Taxonomy comes in levels three through six: Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating, and—last and best of all—Creating. From day one of life without school, if I were to state educational goals for my child, it would be these, otherwise known as critical thing.

Schools, in my opinion, pay lip service to critical thinking, but the necessary assembly-line aspects of school make it difficult to achieve and, what’s worse, often enable it only within the realm of competition, which, after reading Alfie Kohn’s No Contest, is my filthiest of dirty words.

So, one difference between knowing and learning is that knowing—a skill for which schools and their accomplices, the testing companies, offer high prizes—is actually just a minor component of what life is all about, which is learning. Such abilities as being able to compare, question, defend, satirize, illustrate, and recreate an idea in another medium are the gifts that learning—getting something under your skin, owning it—brings to our lives, and schools try to address these abilities,  but I think they lose any points they gain by then exposing the results to rubrics and grades.

For example, a lesson plan for “Teaching the Compare/Contrast Essay” provides teachers with grueling instructions for explaining the ability to compare and contrast, giving examples of things to compare and contrast, etc., all the way through to proofreading the essay after it’s been written. The way in which the skill—high on Bloom’s Taxonomy and therefore essential to the development of critical thinking—is made to seem apart from real life can be found in the first sentence of the lesson plan: “The compare/contrast essay is easy and rewarding to teach because you can convince students there is a reason for learning it.”

There is so much wrong with that sentence, I don’t know where to begin. Let’s just say that this entire “lesson” happens in real life whenever a person (who might just be a child) discusses her opinions about anything, even whether old Batman reruns are better than old Superman reruns.

Critical thinking occurs naturally in any environment in which human beings feel safe and stimulated—without teaching, convincing, or proofreading. And, yes, I know that proofreading has its place; it’s how I once earned a humble living.

Moving on to what inspired me to write about the difference between knowing and learning, I read an article in The New York Times the other day called “In Praise of Not Knowing.” I urge you to stop reading this blog post right now and read the article. But then please come back here, to read what I have applied, analyzed, evaluated, and created about it.

Oh good, you’re back.

What the writer, Tim Kreider, has done in this article is very important; he has put “not knowing” in its rightful place as a crucial component of learning. Sometimes, what makes something get under your skin is what you don’t know about it. Unit-studying homeschoolers might encourage learning everything you can conceivably know about a particular subject, but Kreider reminds us that knowledge is not necessarily always the goal we should be seeking: “what we cannot find inflames the imagination,” he writes.

In light of the ideas Mr. Kreider brings to the table, I’d like to propose a seventh level for Bloom’s Taxonomy: Appreciating Mystery.  Just as knowledge is not the end-product of learning, critical thinking about some concrete fact or subjective idea is not always an end-product, either. Tim Kreider concludes his essay with this:

Learning how to transform mere ignorance into mystery, simple not knowing into wonder, is a useful skill. Because it turns out that the most important things in this life — why the universe is here instead of not, what happens to us when we die, how the people we love really feel about us — are things we’re never going to know.

The things we’re never going to know are things that can’t be assessed in a rubric, but they are things we’re going to be learning about, in some way,  every second between right now and when we die, or maybe after—things that are definitely going to get under our skin. Things that are different from knowledge. As Albert Einstein wrote:

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.

In those first days of homeschooling, I bought a poster that contains those words. it still hangs on the wall in our home, to constantly remind us of the difference between knowing and learning.

14 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Laura Weldon said,

    Brilliant post, and couldn’t agree more with the next level–Appreciating Mystery. This is the crux of the matter.

    I’ve shared this on the Free Range Learning FB page. Thank you!

  2. 2

    sgaissert said,

    Thank you, Laura.

  3. 3

    Salena Tucker said,

    Thank you for this. I am always on the fence between ‘school at home’ and unschool. This is due to my panic that kicks in for a few days after a visit from a well-meaning relative, who questions me about my kids, and accuses me, subtly, of some sort of negligence. And it usually takes me a few days to recover. Blogs like this reinforce my commission to my children. Thank you.

    • 4

      sgaissert said,

      Thank you for your comment. I know exactly how you feel about the panic. Part of why I write this blog is because other blogs helped me through those days. All my best wishes.

  4. 5

    Cristina said,

    Appreciating mystery…I like that! And I liked the article you linked to. It reminded me of when I had taken my year off from school after graduating high school. During that time, I started reading Shakespeare and watching his plays without benefit of teacher. I just wanted to read it without someone asking me to interpret it, to experience the acting without needing to write about it later. I probably understood about half of the jokes in the comedies, but that was when I truly learned to appreciate Shakespeare.

    As to schools, I would go so far as to say that they really only cover (care about?) the Remembering level. I think back about how I developed such a distaste for math, and part of the reason was I could not remember the formulas for tests. In “real life”, you remember by doing. There is no lack of places you can find these formulas. What is important is knowing when to use them. I knew what formula was needed or what theorem would work in a proof, but I could not keep all of these facts in my head in any order.

    Just my two cents. :-)

    Peace and Laughter!

    • 6

      sgaissert said,

      Thanks for your comment, Cristina. I tried to read Hamlet as a kid after seeing the TV production with Richard Chamberlain. I spent more time looking at the footnotes explaining what the archaic words meant (it was my introduction to footnotes) than really following the plot, but I just wanted *more* after seeing that TV play.

      I agree about the undue importance placed on remembering. I don’t think I currently know a single math formula, but they would certainly be easy to find!

      The article by Kreider was really excellent.

      Thanks, again!

  5. 7

    That “compare/contrast essay” lesson plan makes me want to die.

    I agree that there is not enough emphasis on the later crucial stages of Bloom’s taxonomy. And yet with all the emphasis on Remembering and Understanding in the schools, it seems students don’t remember or understand enough — probably because they don’t have as much opportunity to Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, and Create, all of which helps reinforce what they have supposedly remembered and understood.

  6. 9

    [...] Gaissert* presents The Difference Between Knowing and Learning posted at The Expanding [...]

  7. 10

    Miss Nirvana said,

    Wonderful post. I bought an older version of Bloom’s Taxonomy at a library book sale last Spring, and it struck a cord with me as well.

  8. 12

    [...] ignorance into mystery, simple not knowing into wonder, is a useful skill.” In a blog post – The Difference Between Knowing and Learning [...]

  9. 13

    pebblekeeper said,

    Wonderful Post! I loved the quote of turning ignorance into mystery. Oh how I’ve tried to explain to people that the hardest thing to teach a child is wonder, especially when the wonder has faded. Thanks for a great post!

    • 14

      sgaissert said,

      Thank you. I’m glad to have found your blog. I hope to start up the Blog Carnival of Unschooled Life again in September; please send a post when I do!


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