Learning or Being Taught? Which Works Better?

Having more knowledge available is a valuable asset. The real value comes when you know enough to know what you don’t know.

Learning is different from being taught. being taught is more efficient. Learning is more effective.

Being taught

The process is passive. The student has information and knowledge delivered to them in packages. Like Lego. It builds from basic facts and builds an organized whole. It is efficient because there are no diversions from the theme. There are no dead-end roads. The student comes to understand how the whole is the sum of its parts.

It is organized. There is no extraneous material. The process involves passing on information that people have already learned. The mistakes fall away and a clear path is available to the student. Edison tried a thousand ways to build a light bulb before he was able to illuminate the world.

It is measurable. The modular nature of the process means the student can be tested to see where they are in the knowledge stream. The tests can show areas not understood. Remedial work can be assigned. The student doesn’t have to retrace their steps after travelling far on an unproductive path.

Teachers can change the emphasis or modify the order to meet the needs of some students. Some students are willing to build from the specific to the general. Others want to see the general case first and then fill in the details.

Students must merely pay attention, do the work, and enjoy the utility of what they have been given.


Learning is quite different. The student becomes their own teacher. Curiousity is a requirement. People don’t learn much about things that don’t interest them. They work at it to get what they need.

They must find a way to acquire the information they need. Today the internet is a big advantage, but it still won’t tell you much as experiencing the subject. A picture of a bird and the details of its habitat and habits will not replace the excitement of finding a bird’s nest and watching what happens over a few weeks in the spring.

The student must learn to deal with information even though it often comes at them in the wrong order. The mathematics that supports quantum mechanics arrived well after the idea was clear. A student today would not have the communication void that scientists overcame in the 1920s.

The path to knowledge is not a straight line. It is more like a jumble of string. False starts are common. Better ways to do something learned a month ago abound. Each new discovery is exciting.

Every part of the subject is attached to an experience or a search. The student knows how they came to know what they know. They also know what doesn’t fit and why. Their knowledge is deeper and sturdier than the knowledge of someone who has been taught.

The being taught advantage.

It is very efficient and is appropriate for any subject where the student merely wants to use the tools. How much math do you need to know to be a useful citizen? Not a lot. I haven’t used calculus ten times in the past 50 years. Statistics is useful though, but I am long way from a statistician. Infinite Galois Groups have never come up as a solution, but Markov chains do. The main advantage of being taught math, as an example, is the organized thinking process carries over to other subjects.

Being taught exposes you to subjects you would never have found at all, and some will be useful. A remedial reading teacher told me some students have trouble learning to read because they don’t know what it is for. The ones who haven’t been exposed to written material and who want to know the general before the specific I suppose.

The classroom implicitly teaches useful skills. Like teamwork, punctuality, respect for others, obedience, and patience.

Teaching works very well to impart knowledge the student may not use very often. It may inspire the student to follow an interest in some subject, but at the cost of fitting their experience to the subject matter as it was presented. Often that is harder than you might think it should be. Unlearning material is harder than learning it. What engineering students learn in school and what they need to know to flourish in a business are often quite different approaches.

The learning advantage

The student is involved with the subject. It is not abstract. They develop an intuition about what could be true and set out to find a way to prove it or to discover how someone has already proved it. When they find it, they understand why the proof “must be so.”

Learning leads to questions. As the student builds knowledge, they identify the space they don’t know. Every competent person, in any field, knows what they don’t know. They know what must be added to their knowledge before they can go there. They know what the implications of the discovery might be.

The student who learns recognizes that research and development are only a little connected. The researcher finds the playing field and assesses the rules of the game. The developer learns to play the game with skill on the playing field and subject to the rules. The connection is not instantaneous. Friedrich Miescher discovered DNA in 1869. Watson and Crick found its structure in 1953. The public notice of it came in 1968 with Watson’s book, “The Double Helix. ” Fifty years later we are using DNA in criminal investigations, in biology to alter plants, and in medicine. The mRNA vaccines, if proven safe, will open up treatment for many diseases. It could be as simple as plugging in a bit of information and changing the function. Like changing the bit in an electric drill.

It took more than 100 years to go from discovery to the beginnings of engineering and application. Having a sense of the unknown and its value is something the learner can have while the taught student must struggle.

Learning can be narrow. I know business owners who if questioned about the Earth travelling around the Sun would profess no knowledge and even less interest.

They learn only what impacts their world. They tend to know how things work and tend to not know why. That gives them an advantage. They don’t “know” what is impossible. Their experience is valuable to them. Theory and practice are not the same thing.

They can unlearn more easily than those who were taught. It has to do with depth. The taught tend to see the surface, while the learned see how it came to be that way. Adding or subtracting something in the depths has meaning if you have been in the depths.

A comparison

It is very difficult to lead a learner astray. If a learning student follows the Thomas Sowell approach — facts, experience, and common sense, they tend to come to workable answers. Not necessarily complete because not many things are ever finished, but useful, deeply understood, and rational.

The learner can be deceived by misinterpretation, but learners tend to find and correct errors quickly. The thing doesn’t fit.

Learners are active and they don’t rely on “received wisdom.” Those who have been taught, tend not to have a way of renouncing what “doesn’t fit.” Their process of acquiring the knowledge creates a fit.

Some questions.

Could someone who studied the development of American society in depth, decide it was bad? Compared to what? What are the criteria for bad? What are the alternatives? Would they objectively, and provably, be able to believe the system was worthy of destruction? Would they see flaws that could be addressed? Would they notice inherent conflicts? Could they assess the cost/benefit of the approaches offered?

In simple terms could they see the good in it and the bad in it and design tradeoffs to provide optimal value? All of the real world requires trade offs.

Could someone who has been taught, believe the system is bad and must be replaced? Apparently yes. Those who have been taught have a bias towards believing they know all they need to know. They cannot assess the tradeoffs because no one taught them about the blank spaces. the conflicts, and the inconsistencies. Ideologues seldom see the need for tradeoffs.

No one can make a good case without understanding the many ways of thinking about the question.

The takeaway

Those who have been taught may be right, but they cannot prove it. They cannot show evidence and their reasoning frequently has gaps where magic must occur. Acting with those gaps present is irresponsible.

They tend to be more certain than learners. Learners have discovered how easy it is to be wrong.

The best scientists, philosophers, and leaders are humble. They know their knowledge is a tiny fraction of what could be known.

Learners use facts and reasoning to convince others. Ideologues and the ones who have been taught, use rhetorical tricks, constant repetition, and ideas.

Those who have been taught are impatient. Learners know change is not always required and difficult to do when it is.

The strongest knowledge structures evolve. They change as more is learned and they discard what does not work well any more. There is no society that was created in the abstract and then deployed successfully.

Learning leads to knowledge and then the wisdom of deployment. being taught does not lead to wisdom.

Beware of received knowledge.

You learn to love. You have to taught to hate.

I help people have more retirement income and larger, more liquid estates.

Call in Canada 705-927-4770, or email don@moneyfyi.com

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