The HeadScratcher Post Archive
October  2013
Two kinds of Knowledge
       October 2013 The Headscratcher Post Headscratchers LLC    Edition 96

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Two kinds of Knowledge

Before we talk about knowledge, we need to talk about teaching.  When we teach, what are we teaching?  Teaching is about knowledge transfer.  We teach what we know, even if it's teaching someone how to do something, we're actually transferring knowledge. 

We gain knowledge in several ways; by ourselves via reading, watching, and listening to others.  This type of knowledge is often called, "book knowledge".   For example; consider learning to ride a bicycle.  You can gain a great deal of "book knowledge" by reading how to ride a bicycle, how to signal a turn, what to do when a car comes.  You gain additional "book knowledge" by watching people ride a bike, and listening to someone describe it. 

We also gain knowledge through our experience.   When you get on a bike, you learn a great deal more; about balance, muscle coordination, friction, fatigue and a variety of other interactions.  These experiences also contribute to your knowledge.  Knowledge from experience is often called "street knowledge" or "street smarts".

We're pretty good about teaching the first kind of knowledge, "book knowledge", but not good at all about teaching "street smarts", the knowledge gained from having experience.  Why is that?  What is different about that knowledge?

We don't think there is any difference between knowledge gained by being taught, verses knowledge gained with experience.  What's different is the volume of knowledge and associations between them.  The knowledge gained through just a couple of bike rides is vastly more than what is gained through "book knowledge". When you get on a bike, thousands, if not millions of miniscule movements form your knowledge of action-reaction, lean this way and that happens, lean the other way and something else happens,  put this much pressure on the brake and the bike does this, hitting a bump, or rut in the road and what happens after that.   The knowledge gained in a relatively short time is tremendous, with nearly an infinite number of possible permutations, including how one action affects another (the association). 

Knowledge gained through experience isn't always physical.  Think about the knowledge gained during the experience of presenting to an audience.   Remember your first presentation.  There were so many unknowns  that you had to learn, such as watching the audiences reaction, when to answer a question or delay, when to speed things up or slow things down, when to let a conversation proceed, or stop it so you can continue, even how to open the eyelids of those who are falling asleep. 

Why can't we teach "street knowledge"?  When you're a coach, a manger, a parent, or a mentor, you're a teacher and you transfer knowledge.  No matter how detailed you can be, and how much time you take to transfer your knowledge, there are two reasons why you cannot transfer all of the knowledge that you gained through your experience.  We can't quantify all that knowledge, it is so vast you can't even identify it all.  Second, we haven't really figured out a way to transfer the memories of the eyes, brain, our senses, taste, fear, joy, muscles movements, and thinking patterns; the physical and mental knowledge that comes from an experience. 

Unlike a computer, the human brain isn't just a digital device, with discrete combinations.  It's a very complex multi-faceted analog device.  Your "book" knowledge can be stored in the brain as a digital memory, and while not completely understood, it's fairly simple to emulate with electronics.   Your experiences however, are stored more like the creation of a set of interacting analog devices.  Not only don't we understand how the brain does this, be we haven't figured out how to emulate this.   This is why we can't teach experience.  You have to actually "experience an experience to be experienced".  

So what happens when you ask someone to do something that they have no prior experience with?  Their knowledge alone may not be sufficient.  You have to allow for them to gain knowledge that can only come from experience.
Learning something well requires the combination of both "book" and "street" knowledge.   This is why it's so important to let people practice and try things, because no matter how much you teach them, you can never come close to the amount to knowledge they gain from the first hand experience.  We practice, we have apprenticeships, and we have junior positions and employee in training.   We let people try things. 

The Takeaway: If you want to teach someone to do something, understand that no matter how long you spend with that person, they will need to practice, to try it, to experience it.  That is the only way they will learn it.

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