Knowing and Learning – Is there a Difference?

I am working through the process of writing my book on Learning Intelligence, LQ, at the moment. A number of fundamental question have arisen from this work including this one.

Is there a difference between knowing and learning?

I see learning being the bridge between knowledge and understanding and that once across this bridge understanding facilitates creativity. Let me give you an example of my thinking on this question and how I arrived at this conclusion.

CAT symbol quan

Why 12 x 12?

It’s a simple question, why do we learn our times table up to 12?

By exploring something we all are taught at a very young age, the “times tables”, or “multiplication tables” I hope to show my thinking. The question may not be relevant to understanding knowledge and learning but why up to 12? I know my times table, I know that 1 x 1 is 1 all the way up to 12 x 12 is 144. Why did I stop at 12 x 12? Why not go all the way up to 19 x 19 or further? If 12 were decided upon as the upper limit because of imperial measurements, 12 inches in a foot and 12 eggs in a dozen etc, then why when we went decimal in the UK did we not decide to only go as far as 10 x 10? Continental and ‘metric’ Europe may only teach up to 10 x 10 but what about America and Canada? There must be a rational explanation why knowing our times table up to 12 is necessary. No one ever told me as a learner why.

If we take the “You will need it in everyday life” consequences of knowing something  then there has been countless times when my times table has been immensely useful and I can only think of a few situations where more than 12 x 12 would have been needed. Perhaps there is something in it and if you know the reason behind this please let me know.

Does knowing help?

Accepting then that there is some rationale behind the range of the times table, does knowing this help me in some way or is there something more to it? I have already said there are everyday life examples where it does help but knowing 12 x 12 is 144 is one thing, understanding why, I would claim, is another.

This is where it got interesting, well to me anyway! Let me explain and I think this is the route to the difference between knowing and learning.

Learning by rote, often by chanting or repetition, may help build up neural pathways. Each pathway forming a sort of highway with a fixed destination for each starting point. As soon as I see 6 x 6 or verbalise 6 x 6 my highway connects me to 36 and I retrieve the answer.  The answer can be retrieved as fast as any reflex and in schools this was often the basis of competition in learning my tables. Now whenever I encounter a number between 1 and 12 and need to multiply it by another number between 1 and 12 I have the answer almost instantly because I know it. Where does this leave me though if I want to know 13 x 13? I argue that I need to understand something, I need to understand the basis of the times table in order to advance it beyond knowing.

What about learning?

If I know the times table not only by chanting it over and over but the principles on which it is based then I would claim I have a chance of applying that to working out what 13 x 13 is. If I only “know” my tables then as soon as I progress beyond 12 x 12 I am at a loss.

In understanding the principles I would have “learnt” about the times table and I would claim this is a step up from knowing it. Having the tools through learning about the times table and learning the relationship with having “X”  lots of  “Y” being the same as X times Y allows me to apply an element of logic taking the process a little further again. I am in effect being “creative,” I am solving problems with what I have learnt and what I know. 13 x 13 may now present itself to me as 10 x 13 = 130 and 3 x 13 = 39 giving me the answer of 169. I know 3 x 3 is 9 so I can work out that the final digit should be 9 too. If encouraged or perhaps out of interest born from understanding and wanting to learn further I can go on then and explore other relationships within the table. For example recognising 8 x 9 is the same as two lots of 4 x 9 or that 12 x 6 x 2 is the same as 12 x 12. I am now into number patterns and relationships and building my own knowledge.

The Key

This to me is the key, with the process of learning as opposed to just knowing you can build your own knowledge beyond that of what you are given.  You can solve problems, well at least attempt to solve them, using principles which you understand rather than just know.

When knowing something is not enough

One final example from my own experience of learning and knowing. During the early phases of learning German in school and in an effort to make us comfortable with the language (my claim at the time it was to keep us in order I think!) the teacher had us learn a German play. Each member of the class had a part and lines to “learn”. We learnt them and could make a fair attempt to perform the play. Outside of this narrow knowledge of German though we could not engage anyone or attempt to communicate. To this day I can remember some lines from my part but unless somebody approaches me offering me chocolate I am stumped as this was my prompt to speak my lines.

There are times when knowing something is enough and it can be really helpful (quiz nights perhaps) and at other times learning is far more important. Learning and through this process developing understanding allows the individual to apply, to be creative in using what they have learnt. It opens up the creative process and helps in solving problems.

It would be fair to say that in any education there are times when knowing is important. For example knowing what sounds letter make is one step towards reading and verbalising the code that is writing. Many people who would drive education policy suggest a “back to basics” approach focused on knowing. Those who call for back to basics never actually say how far back they want to go though and there may have been a time when this meant clubbing mammoths and lighting fires! Since we all have our own ideas what the basics are they tend to receive sweeping support from those who find failings in the education system but this does not move us forward.

Looking for a balance

I would suggest a need for a balance between knowing and learning but where should this balance lie and over what time frame? Should we start off with more knowing in the early years of education and then more learning towards the end of formal education or should there be a seesaw effect with a shifting emphasis? A lot more questions but I have this nagging feeling that if we could come up with the right questions, the one that would provide us with the answer we are looking for, we could identify those policies and practices that would take education forward and out of this loop we appear to be in.

Comments always welcome and so if I have stirred up your thinking let me know.


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About AcEd

"4c3d" (AcEd) is the abbreviation for Advocating Creativity in education, a company I set up to challenge how we think about and deliver education. The blog champions my concept of Learning intelligence, how we manage our learning environment to meet our learning needs as well as detailing those needs: Power Belonging, Choice and Fun - PBCF. Kevin Hewitson 2019

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