Recently, I made the following comment on Facebook:
Immediately, people wanted to know more.
What’s the deal? Why was I be taking such a harsh stance against these seemingly innocuous words?
The simple answer is that they’re not innocuous. There are two big problems that arise when we use the words “know” and “understand” in a learning context.
Problem #1: They’re Objectively Meaningless
Take for example this common phrase that you might see on a sales page:
“In this course, you will learn how to know which social media platforms to use in your business.”
Now, take this from the perspective of someone taking your course. You are promising that they will know something – but what does it mean to “know” it, in this context?
Does it mean that they will know:
- Which are the 3 biggest platforms out there right now?
- The #1 platform that you think every business owner should be using?
- How to evaluate any platform that they encounter, to know if it’s right for their business?
And more importantly, how will you be able to measure their understanding? How will they?
The problem with the words “know” and “understand” is that they’re objectively meaningless. Depth of knowledge and understanding is highly subjective.
How can you measure understanding? You can’t; not directly, anyway. It’s a proxy word for what we really care about: demonstrable, measurable action.
Problem #2: They’re Inherently Lazy.
See, when we dig down into it, we realize that when we say things like “I want them to understand X”, we’re using the word as a sort of short-hand.
What we really mean is that we want them to be able to do something based on that understanding.
Maybe we want them to be able to recite a fact.
Maybe we’d rather that they be able to describe it, in their own words.
Maybe we want them to be able to apply a certain tool, to achieve a certain result.
But when we’re not being precise with our language, all of that nuance gets lost. There is power in precision; in saying exactly what you mean. When we resort to talking about “knowing” and “understanding”, we’re ultimately being lazy by not asking ourselves what that really means.
(Need help teasing this out for yourself? At the end of this article, I’ve got a free download that will help.)
Problem #3: They’re Incredibly Low-Level
When you do step back and think about the words themselves, you realize that they’re incredibly weak.
Take the word “know” for example. What does it mean to “know” something?
It means you know it; you know the facts about it. If you know a quote, you can recite it. If you know a word, you can define it. You remember it. You’ve memorized it.
It doesn’t mean anything more than that. It doesn’t mean that you could explain what it means, or describe it in your own words.
That’s where “understanding” comes into play. By strict definition, to “understand” something means that you can explain it, redefine it, express it in your own words.
But even that isn’t very useful in the grand scheme of things.
Take, for example, the famous equation:
E = mc2
You can know that equation — be able to state it — without having a clue what it means. If you understand it, you might be able to explain it to someone.
But so what?
An equation like that isn’t valuable just to “know” and “understand”; it’s valuable when you can apply it. When you can solve problems with it, or create whole new theories of the universe around it.
There’s a reason that educational researchers and theorists consider “knowing” and “understanding” to be the very lowest levels of learning — because they are.
Problem #4: They’re Us-Focused, Not Learner-Focused
And that leads us to the fourth problem.
See, the truth is, it’s very rare that you’ll come across someone that wants to learn just the facts. Being able to recite dates from history is great for trivia games, but it’s in being able to apply and extend the dates from history that the real value comes in.
They don’t take our programs solely to be entertained. They take them because they want to learn something. Because they want to be able to choose a different action in the future than they could otherwise have done.
When we focus on what we want people to “know” or “understand”, we’re putting our interests ahead of theirs. We’re focusing on what we want to teach, instead of the far more important question of what they want to do as a result.
Please, Banish The Words “Know” and “Understand”
Look, I get it.
Even I sometimes catch myself talking about “knowing” and “understanding” – you can probably go through the archives and find times when I’ve let those words slip through.
But we can do better. For ourselves, for our customers and for our businesses.
This journey of craftsmanship is about precision, intention and care.
Crafting remarkable learning experiences comes when we put our customers and their needs first.
It’s that approach that gives you the ability create programs that pull people to completion, rather than feeling like you have to push them every step of the way.
When we step back and make intentional choices and decisions that have our clients’ best interests in mind, we position ourselves apart from the crowd.
And that won’t ever happen if we continue to let ourselves get away with using language like “know” and “understand”.
Free Quick Start Guide: From Understanding To Action
In this free workbook, you will get the tools and exercises I use with clients and students.
This exclusive Quick Start Guide will not only help you clarify the results that you’re promising to buyers, but also gives you specific step-by-step questions to answer along the way.
Plus, a list of alternate verbs you can use, so you never have to rely on “know” or “understand” again.
Just enter your name and email address to download your free guide, now.