We all have the challenge of matching what we know (in our heads) with the reality of the world (outside our heads). We begin to tackle this task as soon as we are born and it should never stop. We get to an approximation that is generally borne out by colleagues and media. Unfortunately gaps can open up and we can struggle to maintain our touch. For instance, a senior police officer was surprised to realise that the attitude of the commissioner showed up in the behaviour of front line officers. Similarly, managers often struggle to see that the quality of their thinking is reflected in the quality of their organisation’s service delivery.
Conversely, students of architecture I worked with knew the theory of structures, services, materials and so on but had no concept that these “subjects” were intimately connected in their designs of buildings – they knew the parts but not the whole. A colleague tells me that few of the people who become experts at personality profiling know how to use the information they generate for development purposes. If knowledge is not understood within a wider context it can be ineffective and even dangerous. It is as if we see the world through glass – we see how things work but the glass separates us from actual contact, depriving us of essential feedback.
I once partnered a young man I met in the mountains. He spun a good yarn, he had all the best gear and knew a lot about climbing. However, once we were high on the mountain it became clear to both of us that he lacked experience; his skill was theoretical and his confidence no more than bravado. We had to abandon our trip because we lacked the capacity to succeed.
This disconnect is a common fact of life, which we can address consciously, once we realise that there is nothing so practical as a good theory – and that putting theory into practice is a learning activity. Mostly that involves engaging ourselves in action until our knowledge becomes visceral. Then only do we know.
This is the algebra of successful living. Knowledge is abstracted from reality by our imagination and cognition and returned to reality through our intentional action. It is a cycle of differentiation and integration. Only when the cycle is complete do we know – and then we know that we know.
Learning can be so much more than learning about something. We need not only to know about something but to know it in every aspect of our being – body, heart and mind. For us to really know, we need to be able to embody our knowing through our actions. That is why we owe it to those we teach to help them experience what they know.