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Are there two types of knowledge?

Let us tell you a story. A chauffeur pretended to be a scientist.

Max Planck was touring across Germany after receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918. He delivered the same lecture on new quantum mechanics wherever he was invited. Over time, his chauffeur grew to know it by heart: "It has to be boring giving the same speech each time, Professor Planck. How about I do it for you in Munich? You can sit in the front row and wear my chauffeur's cap. That'd give us both a bit of variety." Planck favored the idea, so that evening, the driver held a long lecture on quantum mechanics in front of a distinguished audience. Later, a physics professor in the audience stood up with a question. The driver recoiled: "Never would I have thought that someone from such an advanced city as Munich would ask such a simple question! My chauffeur will answer it."

Isn't this a fantastic story? It tells us there are two kinds of knowledge. One is the deeper kind that Max Planck had, and the other is superficial knowledge, just like the chauffeur's performance.

The chauffeur in the story knew few things as he had attended Max Plank's lectures many times. But his knowledge was pretty surface-level. He could not face a question from the audience member as the question required a deeper understanding. 

We often confuse public speakers and orators with people who know a subject deeply. Public speakers usually have excellent presentation skills. 

A person has to study a topic deeply to become an expert. One must think deeply from all directions for a long time to acquire Planck knowledge. 

Let us take the case of teachers in schools. 

What kind of knowledge do our teachers have? 

I will leave this question for you to think about. But I am sure there is only one answer to this question: Would you like to learn from a teacher like the chauffeur in the story of Max Planck?

You would like to learn Science from Max Planck. Learn Math from Pythagoras. English from Robert Frost. This means that teachers should definitely strive for Planck knowledge.

Unfortunately,  teachers keep teaching in almost the same manner every year. At the end of each year, a new batch of students walks into the classroom. But, the examples and questions asked by the teachers remain the same as the previous year.

If we do not challenge our teachers, how will they become stronger at their subjects? The children deserve to learn from teachers who are really good at their subjects.

Learning is not easy. But, it is possible

It is hard for children to learn something. It is harder for teachers to learn something. Here are a few things teachers should do to become stronger at their subjects:

·        Read new books on the same topic.

·        Put yourself to the test by answering good-quality tests or worksheets on the same topic

·        Read your class notes and ask yourself if you really understand everything. Put every question in your mind on a blank paper and then discuss it with a subject expert

·        According to Richard Feynman, the best way to understand something is by teaching it to a 12-year-old. Teachers need this perspective to connect with students. You can read more about this technique to become a better learner here

·        Attend workshops meant to expand understanding of different topics. Take part in seminars, discussions, and dialogues. 

·        Gain insights by accessing challenging questions

In other words, anything that gives you a new way of looking at the topic will be helpful. You will begin learning like a student again. The new perspective will help you connect with students better. 

What resources can teachers use?

There is a lot of similarity between teaching and learning. After all, learning is a journey, and so is teaching. There are many resources out there to support teachers along the way. 

Thinking Classroom workbooks are excellent resources for teachers and students. Open Door's questions make teachers think in a new way with the help of questions. The workbooks challenge students and teachers to come up with answers to questions that they had never seen before.  

The teaching resources work if we are ready to challenge ourselves. A good starting point is acknowledging the difference between surface-level and deep knowledge. 

Difference between knowing and understanding

Let us look at something that happened to Richard Feynman in his childhood. Once, he was walking with his friend in the woods. Suddenly the friend pointed at a bird and asked if he knew what that bird was called. Feynman already knew a lot about that bird. His dad had told him a great deal about it in the past, including its name. But he pretended not to know the name and told his friend he had no idea. His friend took it as Feynman's lack of knowledge and made fun of it. But to Feynman, knowing only the name of something is not sufficient at all!

According to Feynman, knowing the name of the bird and actually understanding something about the bird are completely different. According to him, people often mistake naming things as knowing about them. In actuality, names are helpful only to talk about stuff. To know about something includes much more. For example, understanding its different components, function, purpose, etc.

Like this story, we should explore the idea that true knowledge exists beyond the textbook definitions. If we don't, we will train our students to become like the chauffeur who got stuck on a challenging question.


Manish Dubey

Manish is a Business Associate at Open Door. He believes in the transformative power of education and thinks that every teacher can be a role model for children.

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