Knowing is Not the Same as Understanding

When did the word ‘google’ become a verb? Not recently. Most of us ‘google’ when we want to know about something, it’s what we all instinctively do. The growth of the internet over the past couple of decades has created a world where we have instant access to enormous amounts of information at the click of a mouse – maybe not all of it correct and certainly some is intentionally misleading. It could be argued that getting to know about stuff has never been easier and that the internet, along with search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo, has created a society that has never been better informed. Without question, not since the invention of the printing press has humanity been better informed. However, this instant access to information leads many to believe that if they can’t find what they are looking for on the first or second page of their search results it probably doesn’t exist, and if it does it’s probably not important. This, coupled with curated content, has led many to seek out ‘what they want to know’, which reinforces their biases, rather than challenges their assumptions and develops deeper understanding.

While having instant access to vast amounts of information undoubtedly makes our lives easier, does it make it better? Does it enable us to make better choices? Does it help us to fully understand the consequences and implications of the choices that are open to us? Does it help us to make choices that lead to meaningful and lasting outcomes? Probably not, as knowing about something is not the same as understanding it, and understanding is an important requirement of our ability to make informed choices. Then how do we get to understand? Through learning. But how do people learn? More specifically, how do highly intelligent, knowledgeable and successful individuals really learn?

Learning experiences

In order to better understand how we as humans learn, ask yourself the following question:

       What have been your most powerful learning experiences? What were the experiences that led you to believe you truly understood something?

We were introduced to this question many years ago by Steve Kerr when he was Chief Learning Officer at GE and head of its Crotonville leadership education centre. Over the years that we have asked this question, no one has ever mentioned their time at university, a conference they attended or training they went through. Without exception, they referred to times when they faced a really challenging situation, one that took them way outside their comfort-zone and stretched them intellectually and emotionally. They will often refer to the fact that they were learning with others while being challenged to deliver something important – for example, launching a new product, integrating a new acquisition, opening up a new market or dealing with a difficult client situation.

We now know this as ‘experiential learning’ and the work of David Kolb in the 1980s taught us that we learn continuously through a four‐stage cycle: Concrete Experience > Reflective Observation > Abstract Conceptualisation > Active Experimentation. In other words, we experience something, we think about it, we consider how we might apply it to our situation and we try it. In short, we learn through our experiences.

Experiential learning is very different to rote or didactic learning in which the learner is presented with theories, principles and instructions, and plays a comparatively passive role.

Experiential learning is not new

The fundamental concept of experiential learning can be traced back to around 350 BC to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them”.

This concept is reinforced by the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius:

       “I hear and I forget.
       I see and I remember.
       I do and I understand.”

More recently Benjamin Disraeli, the British Prime Minister from 1874 to 1880, is quoted as saying “Experience is the child of thought, and thought is the child of action – we cannot learn from books”.

To paraphrase Confucius, ‘You may remember something if you observe it, but you’ll only understand it when you experience it’.

Creating learning experiences

Every day is a learning experience – provided we embrace the learning opportunities it offers. The key to experiential learning is to look at things from a different perspective, to take a different point of view and engage with people with whom you would not do ordinarily. If the process feels uncomfortable and what you’re seeing and hearing doesn’t fit with your current frame of reference, then the learning process is working. It’s important not to sabotage the learning process by seeking out information and experiences that reinforce what you think you already know, and experiencing a degree of cognitive dissonance is a natural part of the learning process. Of Kolb’s four stages of experiential learning, probably the most important is stage two, Reflective Observation, where you process and make sense of what you are experiencing. Only then can you conceptualise a different future based upon what you have learned.

Experiential learning journeys

Learning is often accelerated when we find ourselves in a different context, which in turn creates a set of new learning experiences. For example, changing your job, visiting a new country or starting a family all lead to accelerated learning experiences. If the change of context is intentionally planned then they are often called experiential learning journeys. While they can be undertaken by individuals they are also a very powerful way of developing shared understanding among a group of people, for example a leadership team. Learning journeys are most effective when they not only impart knowledge, but also change the participants’ perception of the world and the role they need to play in it. In fact, learning journeys can be life-changing if participants embrace the possibilities they offer.

One such example is an experiential learning journey undertaken by the leadership team of a mid-sized UK hospital. The aim of the learning journey was to understand what they collectively needed to do to take patient-centric care ‘to the next level’. As they were already acknowledged as a world-class centre of excellence for cardiac and thoracic research and treatment in the UK, they knew that they needed a different approach, one that was not immediately apparent. In order to get this understanding the leadership team visited several clinics and hospitals in the USA, most notably the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. On their return the insights gained enabled them to develop and execute a patient experience improvement programme that worked for them. As the Chief Medical Officer, put it “The learning journey not only gave us the insights needed to become more patient-centric, it started the process of collective leadership based upon a shared perception of what the future could be”. As a result the hospital is now widely acclaimed and regarded as one of the best in healthcare in the UK.

Understanding is an important part of learning

If understanding is an outcome of learning then the better we understand the learning process the better able we are to understand the increasingly complex situations we face daily. Furthermore, the better able we will be, as leaders, colleagues, parents and members of society, to make better informed choices that will individually and collectively contribute to building a better future.

We welcome your thoughts.

David Trafford

Peter Boggis