Introduction Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5


Learning to Learn

Data - Information - Knowledge
How to recognise them
"A person is smart. People are dumb.
Everything they've ever "known" has been proven to be wrong.
A thousand years ago everybody knew as a fact, that the earth was the center of the universe.
Five hundred years ago, they knew it was flat.
Fifteen minutes ago, you knew we humans were alone on it.
Imagine what you'll know tomorrow."

Kay, Men in Black

Welcome to the third part of Learning to Learn. In Part 2 you learned a simple trick to help you produce a list of things you didn't know. This is your list of tasks and now you have it you are well on your way to becoming task not time oriented.

Before we move on to consider how to best use your task list as a means to learn it's time to be clear about what we mean by "knowledge" and how this differs from "data" and something else called "information". While we're at it we also have to get to grips with this difficult stuff known as "understanding".


Some terms mean different things
The trouble with these terms is that different people use different definitions of each and, what is even more confusing, are happy to change their usage at will. For example, it is quite common for the word "knowledge" to be defined as "the remembering of previously learned material". In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary isn't clear either and is happy to include definitions of knowledge ranging from

"Acquaintance with a fact or facts"

through to

"Understanding of a branch of learning"

which I think you will agree are poles apart in terms of the implied depth of understanding. I would not presume to insist that only the definitions used here in this website are correct but I do warn you that unless you are aware that "knowledge" and "understanding" mean different things to different folks, you might get a touch confused.

Data, information and knowledge
So with that health warning out of the way, here's a nice quote from two guys called Cliff Stoll and Gary Schubert:

"Data is not information,
Information is not knowledge,
Knowledge is not understanding,
Understanding is not wisdom."

Which is a very concise way of saying that just because you know some facts doesn't mean you are informed about a topic. Similarly being informed does not make you knowledgeable. However, although Stoll & Schubert certainly have a valid point by saying what they are not, these concepts are, most definitely, connected in some way and that is what I would like to take a little of your time explore.

At the very least be informed
Allow me to illustrate this difference with a true story which you can verify anytime you happen to be in the great English City of Liverpool. The Walker Art Gallery in the city centre was built at the expense of Sir Andrew Barclay Walker in 1877. It is acknowledged as the finest British art gallery outside London, and among the top twenty in the world. At least that's what it says in their brochure.

Many years ago I was working in Liverpool and spent many happy lunchtimes in the Walker Gallery which has, either side of the main entrance, two magnificent statues, one of Raphael and one of Michelangelo. One day as I passed the statue of Michelangelo Buonarroti one of the greatest artists of all time, a man whose name has become synonymous with the word "masterpiece", the creator of works of sublime beauty that express the full breadth of the human condition, my eye was drawn to the inscription on the plinth. As it happens, I had a camera with me and took the, rather poor, picture above just in case the governors of the gallery ever noticed the mistake and had it corrected. I had to reduce the picture quite a bit to fit it on this page which makes the inscription impossible to read but here it is full size and sharpened up a bit.

Hang on, what does it say?.....Whoa! ..... double Whoa!! So who's this Mikey Angelo bloke then?

Now don't get me wrong, it's a very fine statue and the Walker Art Gallery is a very fine art gallery and Liverpool is a very fine city and scousers are people as well but someone's dropped a bit of a brick here and it looks like I'm the only one who's spotted it. Leastways if the Gallery have they're keeping awful quiet.

Anyway, back to the point I'm trying to make. It seems to me that the chap who carved out the name was working on verbal instructions and knew that there was some famous old artist called Michelangelo but knew nothing about art or, for that matter, Italy. He knew that the name "Michael" was possible because that is also a name common in England and "Angelo" certainly sounds Italian. So he adds two and two and makes five.

He has some facts, for all we know he had lots and lots of them, but he hadn't collected and organised them into something useful. In his case the proverb "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing" gets real meaning. If he had no knowledge at all he might have asked the architect to write it down and I would have lost a story I've dined out on for 20 years. On the other hand, maybe he did. more>

Turning data into information
Data, or facts, are not just useful, they are the cornerstone of our lives, our whole civilisation. We would be nowhere without them so they are clearly useful but not in isolation as the little story about Mikey hopefully illustrates. But they are not knowledge, neither do they signify understanding. On the other hand knowledge and understanding would be nowhere without facts so there must be a connection of some sort. Clearly then we have to do something with our facts which adds value and produces something altogether different. This product with added value is what we recognise as understanding. Got it?

So what can we do with facts that might add some value? Well, we can do lots of things. We could bend, twist, invent, selectively ignore and generally abuse them and get ourselves elected or edit a tabloid newspaper. Or we could do something useful such as collecting lots and lots, organising them and making connections between them. If we do this we have clearly added some value.

By collecting and organising our facts we might say that we have created "information" which is certainly a useful start and if our stonemason had done a bit more of this he might have realised that something was up.

The ability to recognise patterns and make these connections appears to be a particularly human trait and so it's no coincidence that this has been one of the criteria used to define intelligence. More recently we have used computers to help us do this more efficiently and have coined the phrase "Information Technology" in acknowledgment. Computers have no equal in helping us do all this fact-organising, allowing us to make all kinds of useful connections, producing this thing called information. But ultimately, even a shed-load of "information" is of little use unless you just want to impress your friends.

Turning information into knowledge
So, moving right along. Fact-gathering and information production is OK but it's pointless if it's just "Information for information's sake". We have to do something with it, we have to take our information and use it to, for example, solve problems. By doing this we have gained knowledge and, when we've done this enough times we have the added value of something called experience which really just allows us to do the application thing quicker because it's the same or similar to a problem we've come across before. A kind of short-cut which humans are good at and which we are just beginning to get computers to do.

And understanding?
So that's Data-Information-Knowledge but what about this "understanding" stuff? Well, knowledge is important but it wouldn't be possible without a solid foundation of facts, all organised, cross-referenced and stored neatly away ready to be brought out, buffed up and presented as required. "Understanding", I would like to suggest, is the sum of the bits and like all the best "sums of bits", it is greater than all the bits summed. So you can't have understanding without knowledge and you can't have knowledge without facts. Increasing the facts at your disposal may not necessarily increase your knowledge of a particular subject if they are not directly connected but it will contribute to a greater understanding by allowing you to make cross-connections with other areas of knowledge.

I think we'll stop this before I get lost.

There can be no doubt that facts are good but they do not equal understanding. That can only come through knowledge. There is a problem though and that is that it sometimes isn't always that easy to tell the difference between someone who is just spouting large chunks of memorised facts and trying to pass it off as knowledge and someone who truly understands the topic. Knowledge and understanding can only come through the work of applying information and that takes time and effort. One of the functions of examinations is to discover who has made the leap from facts to understanding via knowledge so they can be rewarded.

It's now time to put it all into practice and come up with a practical study method.



Don't kid yourself into thinking that because you can remember a few facts that you have knowledge.


Data, information, knowledge and understanding are all different.


Data (facts) are important but how you use them is more important.


Knowledge comes from manipulating information to solve problems.


Understanding is the sum of it all.


Part 4 How to study




Lest I be accused of throwing stones in glass houses by my Liverpudlian friends I did a little research on this and discovered that it was, in fact, quite common in Britain in the 18th & 19th Centuries to refer to Michelangelo as Michael Angelo. The reason, however, appears to be, as I point out above, a concoction of assumption layered on ignorance with the inevitable wrong conclusion. The only difference being that it wasn't just the scousers who were at it. Still, I haven't yet found another example so, until I do, I'll continue to use it. As an aside, I contacted the curator of the Walker Art Gallery for a comment. After some considerable delay, presumeably to allow him time to make the trip from his office to the front of the building and back plus a bit of reading-up, he wrote a nice letter back informing me that the Mancs did it first in 1857.