Knowing What vs. Learning How

learning how to make a basket from vines

Learning and “Education”

Over the past few years, I’ve been involved in too many conversations about “raising people’s awareness” of some problem or issue.  These conversations have tended to be about how people traveling on the same roadway should behave around each other.  

More specifically, about how drivers should behave around people riding bikes and walking.  For context on this conversation, consider that in 2016 alone, drivers killed nearly 6,000 pedestrians and 1,000 bicyclists on US roadways.  This represents the largest increase in deaths among people walking and biking in more than two decades. 

Of course, these are awful, grim statistics. Ones that people should be aware of and deeply saddened by.  But to think that putting the right messages and the best facts into a few hours’ worth of “driver education” courses will do anything to increase road safety is to engage in magical thinking.

Learning in a Corporate Capitalist Culture

Considering how we “educate” people in our capitalist culture, this magical thinking makes some sense.  For one, when most of us hear the word “learning”,  images of crowded classrooms and dreadful lectures flash before our eyes.

From when we were still wearing pull-ups, the adults in our lives socialized us to equate learning with the abstract-symbolic, rather than the hands-on and sensory.  Sight and sound were privileged over all other senses— financial planners privileged over HVAC technicians.

Yet think about how we learn to play basketball.  We might improve our game a bit by watching Lebron James do his thing.  Our mirror neurons might fire as though we were shooting those free throws. But let’s face it, to really learn how to play basketball, you gotta play basketball!

Why should learning how to ride a bike or drive a 2-ton vehicle be any different?  There’s that abstract-symbolic reasoning again.  In this magical world,  we could simply sit inexperienced drivers down and tell them about the rights and perspectives of people who walk or ride bikes.  The gifted instructor’s words would enter the ears of the self-motivated students and result in permanent, mindful, and considerate driving. Voila! 

If only if were so easy.  Like basketball or baking, cooking or canning, people learn how to drive by driving—by experiencing different roadway environments in different climatic conditions at different times of year.  Learning drivers start to pick up patterns, and after they’ve become experienced enough, they can anticipate safety risks even before they’ve become consciously aware of them.


A Different Approach to Learning

I’ve recently taken to weaving baskets from local vines I’ve harvested.  It’s a fun exercise, as it gets me outside engaging with nature while using my sense of sight, touch, and smell.   Are the baskets I’ve made so far as beautiful and striking as my friend, Bethany’s?  From the photo above, you will no doubt agree: ah, no

To learn how to weave these baskets, I could have sat through 1000s of lectures, attended 100s of conferences and symposia, maybe even watched hours of videos or read books and blog posts about sundry weaving techniques.  

And I did several of these things.  Not only that, by interacting with basket-weaving in these more passive ways, I have developed an appreciation, even a reverence for the craft.  But for all of my time imagining the practice, I still lacked one crucial element: the ability to weave.

Learning by Doing

As I’ve said, before I started failing miserably and embarrassingly at basket -weaving—not unlike my foray into crocheting—I acquired information on it.  Notice the passive, noun-forward nature  of “acquired information.”  

But acquiring information isn’t true learning. It’s about “knowing what“, as in knowing what something is and how it seems to work. Take any lecture-based subject, and the focus is on getting students to “know what.” 

Learning, on the other hand, is about doing.  It’s about practicing, talking out loud to ourselves like a crazy person, correcting and redirecting.  By doing, we engage in “learning how” to carry out a set of tasks to achieve some desired end—be it making an ugly-ass basket or using statistics to predict unobservable outcomes.

How Learning Leads to Change, both Personal and Cultural

We modern folk swim in an infinite sea of information.  At a moment’s notice, we can venture out into the world—or more likely, stare into our screens—to begin knowing what things are and how they function.  And we should continue doing so. “Knowing what” broadens our perspective.

Yet to become an active participant in our world, we must resurrect a “learning by doing.”  Will we at first stumble and look silly?  Indeed we will; I sure did and continue to do so!  Yet it’s in this vulnerable space of self-compassion and openness to exploration where we learn more about ourselves and grow as self-respecting people.  

Only by growing a legion of mature, self-aware people, will we advance a more sane and equitable culture.  Let this revolution begin with the ever-imperative word and world of learning.  A rediscovering of who we are and where we belong.

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