More on Rote, Knowledge and Understanding

This is an extension to my previous Knowledge and Understanding post. It caused some reaction on Twitter where I was asking what else there was. I want to hypothesise that a brain contains knowledge and links between those bits of knowledge. And that’s it in terms of learning. This has proved a little contentious but I don’t think I have been given any reason to disprove the hypothesis. I know others disagree. So say what you think or what you know.

Let me explain what I mean.

First rote: This is a thing which we have learned but have no useful knowledge of its meaning. Someone suggested this could be learning to say a word in a foreign language but having no idea what the word meant. I would add that it is impossible for our brain to learn simply rote. Whatever the rote thing is it will have some meaning. The foreign word will contain sounds, or letters/characters if we see it written. It has some degree of meaning. I believe when people talk about rote learning they are expressing, usually in a pejorative sense, learning where the usual meaning is not part of the learning of that rote item. For example learning times tables by rote. Chanting etc

Next is knowledge: Some people associate this with learning facts. Fine, let’s go with that. Remember facts can be correct or incorrect. One can learn a fact but hold it as a misconception. Knowledge will never be held as an isolated item. It will have connections to other things we know as in the case of a foreign word.

240_f_104724914_1huztt9qesx9gc8gbfk4trgmceery7gpThink about the fact “That is a bus” which is indicated by me pointing at a large vehicle. If you can reliably tell me that the thing I point at in the same circumstances is a bus then you have a piece of knowledge.

Then Understanding: When you have seen a variety of buses in a variety of circumstances you will have developed a concept of a bus. If I point at an elephant you would not see that as a bus. Although elephants have some features that are similar to buses, they are a form of transport for people, they do not have enough features to be properly called a bus.

There is clearly no absolute dividing line between knowledge and understanding. It is a gradual slope. The more features we have linked, recognised, to a piece of knowledge the greater our understanding. I don’t think it is ever possible to say that we completely understand. What would complete understanding of buses mean?

It would include knowledge like:

What a bus looks like, shape, colour, size, destination on the front

What a bus carries, people, driver, conductor (perhaps), bus inspector

And loads of other things. A complete understanding could be said to include the history of buses, how they are repaired, why they have riveted body panels and a myriad of other items. The more these different ideas are linked to the central concept of bus the better our understanding of buses.

So what else is there other than knowledge and understanding? Understanding is, in my view, knowledge which is connected, in various ways, to other knowledge. So my view and somewhat supported by what I have read is that the only thing we can do to change a brain as a teacher is to provide access to, to teach, more knowledge. The brain encodes, turns it into a form that is held in networks of neurones, and links that network to other networks.These links may link to other knowledge, almost certainly will, and to out emotional centres. The other knowledge linked to, the strength, and perhaps speed, of these links, make one person’s knowledge somewhat different to another’s. I see a yellow flower. Wordsworth sees a host of golden daffodils. The retrieval process is not a simple retrieve the memory as though it was photocopied but is reconstructed as in the retelling of a story.

Brains contain knowledge and the systems to connect, retrieve and organise that knowledge. What else is there?

Knowing and Understanding

I wanted to title this piece “Knowing Me, Knowing You” but I decided not to.

A couple of folk, recently, have written about this. @daviddidau and @claresealey. I only want to add one smallish point to what they have written.


The essential idea is that understanding is no more than more knowledge. For me, this is obviously true but I know that for others that understanding is king where (mere) knowledge is a pauper. They use the idea of teaching knowledge, rote learning, as at best the lowest form of education. They are wrong. But I want to give my view on the ‘difference’ between knowledge and understanding.

I am agreeing with both the above bloggers that understanding is just more knowledge.

Complete understanding is unobtainable. Understanding is a growing process where more and more added knowledge, and critically, more linking to stuff we already know increases our understanding. In a programme I run with outstanding teachers I ask of anyone completely understands anything. Some take up the challenge but I can always find something they do not yet know, hence they do not fully understand anything. But I have shown their ‘lack’ of understanding comes from something that they do not yet know.

Understanding is knowing lots about something and having lots of linking to things we already know.

A rule of thumb that seems to work is that knowledge tells us what initially and how as the knowledge base grows. When linking is sufficient we can start to answer why questions.

In simple term to increase our understanding just ask, “What else do I need to know?”

I’d love to know what else I need to know to understand understanding.


In social science, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.

My daughter asked me to teach her 4 her old son, my gorgeous grandson, how to write numbers. Now I willingly take every opportunity to teach. A comment was once made that if I could I would teach a goldfish to dance. It was made after I had spoken about how I had trained my cat to do tricks like a dog. She would sit, roll over, wait etc. Jess, was a delicious cat who would do anything to be stroked. That was the was the way I trained Jess. Strokes in exchange for doing the trick.

I think it is clear that we would not use such a simplistic behavioural technique to teach children in school. Although all teaching will have some element of reward based training. In teaching we would be aiming to support intrinsic rewards, the value a learner puts on the success they gain from being able to complete a problem, for example.

So what does this have to do with agency? My grandson, Kyran (pronounced as in Kieran), said he did not want to learn how to write numbers. He and I have a great relationship so after asking him why. He said that he could not do it. I said that he could as I would teach him and related how I had taught him other stuff. To count to 100, build a very tall lego tower and also, critically, to type his name and to recognise numbers on a computer. He learned this stuff quite easily so I knew he certainly could write numbers.

He was choosing to avoid writing numbers. It was not that he could not. I said it was that he could not write number yet. I’ve done the growth mindset training 😀.

So I was then thinking about which number he should learn first. He is four years old so I choose 4. Not written like that but as three lines, two vertical and one horizontal. He likes being four years old. I drew the number 4 and explained the vertical and horizontal parts. He holds the pencil poorly but that will come in time. He immediately drew the number 4. Lots of praise (a bit like stroking the cat!). He can now write the number 4.

I then asked what number he would like to do next. He said 5. Too hard at the moment, I said so we drew the number one. Great success. Bit more practice and then there will be more tomorrow.

If I were to teach secondary pupils then I would not do much more for a reluctant pupil. Am I allowing a child to have agency? Is it harder to get young children to accept their responsibility for learning? Is that why agency seems to be a more important issue for teachers of young children than for teachers of older children? Do some teachers see valuing agency above valuing responsibility? Or what?

Good learning most likely happens when pupils:

Good learning most likely happens when pupils:


  • have appropriate and enough knowledge easily accessible in long term memory
  • can recall knowledge easily from long term memory
  • link the new knowledge in working memory to knowledge held in long term memory
  • are challenged by the content they are learning
  • are not cognitively overloaded
  • are not distracted, which can simply overload their working memory
  • pay attention to that which is to be learned
  • think about that which is to be learned


I would be really interested in additions to this list, or anything you disagree with.

Simple working memory for teachers

Theory of Memory

Much has been written about how we think memory works. I’ll just give some of the headlines and describe the bits that have most impact on teaching and learning.

First a simplified view of what is called working memory derived from the model presented by Baddeley & Hitch, 1974. The model describes a mechanism rather that particular places in the brain. You could not, for example, identify a lump of the brain which was working memory.


Sensory Memory                       Central Executive                              Long term memory



Phonological loop                    Episodic Buffer                    Visuospatial Sketchpad


The central executive is the name given to the process in the brain that manages the activity of inspecting the sensory information that comes into the working memory. One function of the central executive is to pay attention to sensory inputs.

Working memory is where stuff we detect via our senses gets initially processed. In the phonological loop the inputs loop around, gradually decaying over a matter of seconds. A similar process happens in the visuospatial sketchpad.

A critical issue for teachers about working memory is that it is a very short term. Think of a telephone number you have just been told and need to remember. To keep it in working memory while we look for somewhere to write it down we have to keep saying the number to ourselves. To keep it looping.

Working memory has a small capacity. Cognitive scientists now believe it can retain around 4 items. The size of these items depends on whether we know them already, ie they are in long term memory, or if they are new.

Working memory function, with its limited capacity and short term loop, is also where we engage in the process called thinking which uses some of the already limited capacity. The processing of what we think about takes up working memory.

Working memory is soon overwritten by other information, we pay attention to, coming from our senses. Then what was there is probably lost. This has an impact on the effect of distractions while learning.

If the central executive decides that the information currently in working memory is worth paying attention, and it does this by checking with material already stored in long term memory, then this information gets encoded (in some way in patterns of neurons, cells in the brain) and stored.

Cognitive load relates to the amount of information working memory can deal with. Cognitive overload means we are bombarding working memory with more than it can cope with. In general, teachers should be doing what they can to avoid cognitive overload in their learners and in themselves while teaching.

Long term memory is exactly that. The place(s) where memories that we keep get stored.

But the memory stored in long term memory is not automatically accessible. We can only recall memories if the central executive can access them somehow. This, in teaching, is where methods to strengthen recall come in.

As far as we know there is no limit to the amount that long term memory can hold. When working memory recalls from long term memory the chunks can be quite large. Some elements in long term memory are not chunked and take up more working memory when recalled. We can manipulate large amounts of ‘knowledge’ in working memory if it comes from the store in long term memory.