The difference between learning and understanding

Learning the basics

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Learning is a fairly linear phenomenon.  You examine a decision, look at the outcome, and determine the causal chain.  It is incredibly useful, as well as simple and straightforward.  This is, usually, the manner in which we educate others and ourselves.  Do this and get that. 

On the Job training on the latest process or policy is usually much the same.  People are told, or expected to know,  some desired outcomes.  They are shown the steps that achieve that outcome, and then are expected to master those steps.  Perhaps, in an enlightenend organization, they might even be asked to improve upon those process steps.  This is, essentially, the “Know What” paradigm in action – if you know what gets you to the target, just repeat it, and you will always reach the target.

Learning is about seeing things only for the result they provide.  Understanding, however, necessitaties examining the context of a decision and the basis for the process in the first place.  Whereas learning is forward-thinking (do-this-get-that), understanding is backward looking (do-this-because-of-that) and, therefore, understanding is an essential component of the “Know Why” paradigm.

Know What is the most simple method of directing an activity.  Bosses, parents, bullies, and manipulators of all level will resort to this simplest of methods.  Basically, it’s not much more than, “Do this, or else.”  As such, people learn to avoid punishment.  Or, in a better way, we employ methods such as “Do this, and I’ll give you that.” in order to create a reward.  This way, people learn to seek compensation.

Know Why, however, is a more complex form of stirring people into action.  Know why requires a conversation.  It also requires that the person soliciting the activity has a deep enough understanding of the situation, the reasons why, and the ability to communicate them.  Understanding is not directing, but guiding.  It is also risky – people may reach different conclusions than what was intended.  This is acceptable, however, since it enhances the understanding of the subject for both the teacher and the student.

Developing the habit of understanding is difficult.  It is not the same as openly accepting ideas, but appreciating the thought patterns and circumstances that went into them.  You might not agree with a point of view, but you should understand it.  Interestingly enough, developing an understanding of things you disagree with tends to strengthen your beliefs and not weaken them.

Which, I have come to understand, is something that we should all try to learn.

About David M. Kasprzak

I am Certified Project Management Professional with nearly 15 years of successfully working at the project, program and enterprise levels to plan, analyze, and correct performance trends. Included in my experience is a deep passion for incorporating fundamental Lean and Operational Excellence principles into the practice of Project Management.
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  1. Robert Drescher

    Hi David
    Thanks for the clear and concise way in which you defined learning and understanding. If more of our business leader would try understanding we may just improve our economy. I have always appreciated differences of opinion, often having people around with strong views that are different, can help you get out of your own boxed mind. In my personal history both for myself as a leader, and in those times I worked with leaders when understanding is used your results are better, and you have fewer pitfalls to avoid.
    On the other hand those do this leaders, can never understand why the bottom drops out of their ideas, because they never slowed down to even consider what problem they may run into.

    • Thanks, Robert. I think it was Shigeo Shingo who expressed “Know Why” is better than “Know What.” When the concept is embraced, Know Why is dominant – it leads to better outcomes over time, and demonstrates much more respect for the audience. Not everyone has to agree with a decision, but helping people to understand it is, IMHO, a critical obligation of those in leadership positions

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