Knowing the names of things

Many people have written many thousands of words about the difference between knowledge and understanding, but I think Richard Feynman nails it here:

You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird… So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing – that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.

This is sometimes used to belittle the idea that knowing what things are called is useful. Of course I agree that simply knowing the name of something is quite different to apprehending the ‘thing itself’. Knowing that Albert Einstein came up with the special theory of relativity tells you “absolutely nothing whatever” about what the theory means. That second kind of knowing – understanding if you prefer – takes study. The more you know about a thing, the better your understanding. The more you understand it, the better you’ll know it.

But even though knowing the name of something may be a very limited form of knowledge, does that mean learning names isn’t worth the effort? An ongoing debate in English teaching centres around whether it’s worth knowing the metalanguage we use to discuss language; this includes parts of speech – nouns, verbs etc. – as well as increasingly abstract ideas like the difference between a phrase and a clause, or terms like conjugation and declension. Many people ask, quite reasonably, why you might need to know any of these vocabulary items in order to be able to read and write. And of course you don’t. It’s perfectly possible to be able to do is identify a gerund or the subjunctive and still “know absolutely nothing whatever” about how to write. So what’s the point?

It’s worth watching a clip of the interview from which the Feynman quote is taken:

He goes on to say, “knowing the names of things is useful if you want to talk to somebody else – so you can tell them what you’re talking about.”

And this is the point. We use names and labels for reasons of expediency. While I can say, “the theory that determined that the laws of physics are the same for all non-accelerating observers, which shows that the speed of light within a vacuum is the same no matter the speed at which an observer travels” it’s quicker and easier to say Einstein’s special theory of relativity. Likewise, I can say, “You can use a semicolon to connect two bits of a sentence if both bits could make sense on their own and were also closely related.” But this is confusing and time consuming. How much more efficient would it be if I could say, “You can you a semicolon to connect two closely related independent clauses”? Not only is this more straightforward, it’s less ambiguous.

Knowing the names of things is insufficient, but it is, perhaps, necessary for clear communication. And what’s teaching if it’s not clear communication?

The trick, as Feynman reminds us, is to make sure we don’t fool ourselves into thinking we know more than we do. Knowing “when you know and when you don’t know, and what it is you know and what it is you don’t know” is the work of a lifetime.

12 Responses to Knowing the names of things

  1. […] post Knowing the names of things appeared first on David Didau: The Learning […]

  2. Hugo kerr says:

    Being mischievous: I seldom find myself wanting to explain the purpose of a semi-colon. When I do, I seldom find anyone willing to listen. The thing is so rare as to allow for the extra time to explain in lay language anyway. I am of the opinion that grammar, too, is post-hoc; only after solid fluency has been achieved should any be learned, if then. Knowing ‘rules’ – even ‘explanations’ – is not how we actually do it.
    Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Says that the only purpose of a semi-colon is to show you have been to college.

  3. paceni says:

    “Never be the smartest person in the room. There is always someone who knows something you don’t” That particular Richard Feynman quote is particularly apt since he made one of his greatest contributions to knowledge during the investigation of the Challenger Shuttle disaster in a hearing packed with NASA experts. He spoke truth unto power.

  4. Michael pye says:

    Horizon has the classic documentary on Fenyman ‘the pleasure of knowing things’ on iPlayer.

    While your there check out Simon Singhs ‘Fermat’s last therom’ for a classic double bill. Unfortunately it may make current content seem intellectually flaccid. (Except some of the Storyvilles)

    Finally David have you ever come across a concept called psudeoteaching. If not Google it, the top entry briefly mentions Fenyman but really talks about some ideas I think you will appreciate.

    P.s Paceni, Fenymans contribution to The challenger investigation was to communicate the disconnect between what the NASA engineers knew (they had already figured it out) and how their managers had misunderstood the information.

    His contribution to human knowledge can be seen in his introductory bio on Wikipedia. It’s quite long.

  5. Absolutely. From a teaching point of view, knowing the meta-language makes teaching so much more efficient, and efficiency is something I value highly in the classroom!

  6. Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion: ‘I’ve given the techniques in this book names. This may seem like a gimmick at first, but it’s one of the most important parts. If there was no word democracy, for example, it would be a thousand times harder to have and sustain a thing called “democracy.” We would forever be bogged down in inefficiency—“You know that thing we talked about where everyone gets a say . . . ”—at exactly the moment we needed to rise up in action. Teachers and administrators too must be able to talk about a clearly defined and shared set of ideas quickly and efficiently with colleagues in order to sustain their work.’

  7. Mark Anderson says:

    Great to see you referencing the work of Feynman. An absolutely brilliant man.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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