What is the Difference between Knowing and Understanding?

I recently read a discussion on LinkedIn about this question and it reminded me of why the arts are so important to preparing children for their future.

Knowing in its traditional North American definition, means being familiar with something. Having the facts in your mind. You know how to drive a car, but do you understand how the car works? You know your husband, but do you understand him?

Understanding involves connecting the facts with a context and grasping how, when and why something exists or occurs. I think most of us know more than we understand. There are also, of course, things we will never fully understand.

One of Einstein’s jewels of wisdom was that, “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” 
Knowing is just the beginning, and understanding is the end goal.

How do we promote understanding?

I believe we understand through experience. There are some things you cannot understand until you experience them. For example, when I studied statistics in University, I practiced using formulas and interpreting results with random sets of data. However, it was not until I collected my own data and had to use the formulas to interpret what the data meant, that I began to understand how these formulas worked. As part of my thesis I had to write an explanation and do a presentation about the wider implications of my results.

Because the data was something I cared about and had worked hard to collect, I began to see the power that statistics had to change the way we see the world. Before this, I had seen statistics as something very boring that I was forced to take in school. If I had not experienced the practical implementation of statistics, I would have never gained an understanding of how important they are.

Art and Experience

Arts education, although it may not be traditionally defined as experiential education, fits the definition very well. When you are engaging in arts education you are learning by doing. Experience with the facts helps to cultivate understanding. You are increasing your understanding of the way things work by engaging with ideas and materials in many different ways.

Arts education encourages understanding by encouraging experimentation and trial and error. This process encourages children to take what they know and ask, “what does that mean?” “why?” and “how do we communicate the facts to our audience?”

Designing a Stage Set

Let us take, for example, a set design project. As a group of young people begin this project they already know how to paint and they know that their sets will create a mood for the show, but it is through the process of creating the set, that they begin to understand how choices of colour and brush stroke change the feeling of the set and how the set interacts with what is happening on the stage.