Information Vs Knowledge: What’s the Difference and Why Does It Matter?

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Chris Hutchinson
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    It could be argued that in much of the world today the most abundant and valuable resource in information. It flows both towards us and from us, through our devices, in a cyclical system, like a digital ocean current. As a result of this data-rich society we live in, the terms “information” and “knowledge” are often used interchangeably. Sometimes we might think or say that we “need information” or we “need to get information into the hands” of others, what we actually mean is knowledge.  

    While this may at fist appear a semantic distinction, and ultimately not relevant to end goals, the truth is that they represent fundamentally different concepts, especially when it comes to learning, understanding, and applying them in various contexts, and understanding this distinction and its implications is critical for the success of any learning, training or educational endeavour.  

    So, this week we thought it would be a good opportunity to unpack these terms, their meaning and how that can affect approaches to learning. To begin, let’s define the terms information and knowledge.   

    What is Information?

    Information can be seen as data that has been organized or processed in a way that adds context or meaning. It’s raw facts and figures that have been structured but not yet interpreted or fully understood. 

    Characteristics of Information

    Information is often external, existing independently of individuals. It’s more about ‘what’ – for instance, statistics, descriptions, or findings presented in a report. 

    The Application of Information

    Information serves as the building blocks or raw materials for knowledge. It’s used to inform, to provide a basis for discussion, decision-making, and analysis. 

    What is Knowledge

    Knowledge goes a step beyond information. It encompasses the understanding, interpretation, and application of information. Knowledge is information that has been processed by the human mind through learning, experience, or instruction. 

    Characteristics of Knowledge

    Knowledge is more internal, shaped by individual experiences, beliefs, and insights. It’s not just about ‘what’ but also ‘how’ and ‘why’ – for example, understanding why certain trends occur in the data. 

    Application of Knowledge

    Knowledge is actionable and subjective, often shaped by personal or organizational contexts. It’s used for decision-making, problem-solving, and creating new ideas or innovations. 

    While somewhat oversimplified, it might be helpful to think about the relationship between information and knowledge using this construction project metaphor. Information is the raw building material, the concrete, steel, wires, wood, paint, etc. While knowledge is the architecture, the plans, designs, code requirements and so on. Just as a pile of bricks and wood doesn’t spontaneously become a house, information requires the architecture of knowledge to become useful and meaningful.

    Conversely, without the raw materials the plans and designs cannot be put-to-use. Both information and knowledge are essential components of learning, and by understanding which of them we are dealing with at any given point, or when aiming to achieve a specific goal, we can adapt our methods and approach accordingly. 

    The Connection Between Information and Knowledge 

    The relationship between information and knowledge is dynamic and essential. Information acts as the foundation upon which knowledge is built.

    Without information, knowledge formation is challenging; without the processing and interpretation that transform information into knowledge, data remains somewhat inert and unutilized. 

    In learning and development contexts, this distinction is crucial. While disseminating information might involve teaching facts or procedures, developing knowledge requires a deeper engagement where learners interpret, question, and apply the information in various scenarios.

    It’s about moving from knowing ‘that’ something is, to understanding ‘why’ it is and ‘how’ it can be used or applied. 

    Insights from Neuroscience

    The distinction between information and knowledge is not simply academic in nature, or useful linguistic concepts, but are actually reflected in how our brains function. As we explore the distinction between information and knowledge, it’s enlightening to consider how neuroscience informs this differentiation.  

    Our brains process raw information – data and facts – through mechanisms involving short-term memory encoding and attention, primarily engaging areas like the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. This is the realm of information, where the focus is on the accurate storage and retrieval of discrete data points. 

    Contrastingly, the transformation of this information into knowledge engages a broader and more complex network within the brain. It involves not only the integration of new information into existing cognitive frameworks but also its application and internalization.

    This process is more distributed across various brain regions, reflecting the deeper, more nuanced nature of knowledge. It’s where, or how information, once understood and contextualized, becomes a tool for reasoning, problem-solving, and innovation. 

    While directly applying neuroscientific understandings of how information and knowledge are handled in the brain, to the development of learning and training programs is unnecessary, understanding the distinction can have significant implications for instructional methods in learning and development.

    If one of our goals is for learners to develop knowledge, then opportunities for those processes to occur need to be included. It suggests the necessity of moving beyond mere information dissemination to fostering environments and experiences where deeper processing, reflection, and application are encouraged. 

    If we understand that the distinction between information and knowledge significantly impacts various aspects of the learning process, including the creation of instructional materials, teaching approaches, learning goals, and assessment criteria, how then can we take this information and apply it to learning scenarios? (See, we’ve included a reflective question at this point, for you, dear reader. Actions such as this can help facilitate the transformation of information into knowledge! 😁).

    The good news is you don’t need a neuroscience, or educational science degree to do so, in fact one of our goals at CLANED is to organise, distil, systematise, and automate as much of these concepts and best practices for learning, so you can focus on your goals. 

    Let’s explore what course creators, instructors, and learners need to know and do to take advantage of our biological processes when it comes to learning, information and knowledge: 

    1. Learning and Instructional Materials 

    • Information-Driven: Materials focus on factual content, data, rules, and procedures. Think manuals, fact sheets, and informational presentations. 
    • Knowledge-Driven: Materials include case studies, problem-solving exercises, and real-life scenarios that encourage application, analysis, and synthesis of information. 

    Actions for Course Creators and Instructors 

    • Establishing Goals: Determine if the primary aim is to impart factual knowledge (information-driven) or to develop deeper understanding and application skills (knowledge-driven). 
    • Developing Materials: For information-driven goals, focus on clear, concise, and accurate content presentation. For knowledge-driven goals, incorporate materials that facilitate critical thinking, problem-solving, and real-world application. 

    2. Approaches 

    • Information-Driven: Lecture-based, reading assignments, and memorization techniques. 
    • Knowledge-Driven: Interactive discussions, group work, hands-on projects, and experiential learning activities. 

    Actions for Course Creators and Instructors 

    • Assessing Needs: Analyse the learning needs – do learners need to just understand information or apply it in complex scenarios? 
    • Choosing Approaches: For information-driven objectives, traditional teaching methods can be effective. For knowledge-driven objectives, adopt more interactive and experiential teaching methods. 

    3. Goals/Outcomes 

    • Information-Driven: The goal is often about awareness and understanding of specific facts or procedures. 
    • Knowledge-Driven: The focus is on applying information in practical settings, developing critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. 

    Actions for Learners 

    • Identifying Learning Styles: Determine if they prefer learning that is more information-centric (factual, direct) or knowledge-centric (interactive, application-based). 
    • Engaging Accordingly: For information-driven goals, focus on memorization and understanding of content. For knowledge-driven goals, engage in activities that require application and analysis. 

    4. Assessment Criteria 

    • Information-Driven: Assessments include quizzes, factual questions, and tests that measure recall and understanding. 
    • Knowledge-Driven: Assessments involve case studies, projects, presentations, and practical tasks that evaluate application, analysis, and synthesis. 

    Actions for Course Creators and Instructors 

    • Aligning Assessments with Goals: For information-driven learning, use assessments that test factual knowledge. For knowledge-driven learning, use assessments that require learners to apply and demonstrate their understanding in practical or theoretical scenarios. 

    By understanding the distinction between information and knowledge, and taking these actions, course creators, instructors, and learners can more effectively achieve their desired educational outcomes.

    This approach ensures that learning experiences are not only informative but also transformative, equipping learners with the skills and understanding necessary for their professional and personal growth. 

    The Broad Spectrum of Reality 

    It’s essential to recognize that effective learning and education is not about choosing between information and knowledge, or putting one above the other, but rather about integrating and blending the two together.

    Learning is a spectrum where information and knowledge coexist and complement each other. Depending on the nature of the learning objectives, educational programs may lean more towards information or knowledge, but the most impactful experiences seamlessly blend the two, sometime in unexpected and exciting ways! 

    The Interplay of Information and Knowledge in Learning

    • Foundational Information: At one end of the spectrum, information serves as the foundation. It provides the necessary facts, data, and figures that form the basis of understanding. For instance, in a medical training program, learners must first grasp the fundamental information about human anatomy. 
    • Building Knowledge: As we move along the spectrum, this information is then processed, contextualized, and applied, transforming into knowledge. Continuing with the medical training example, learners apply their understanding of anatomy to diagnose and treat patients, which involves critical thinking and problem-solving skills. 
    • Dynamic Learning Experiences: The most effective learning experiences recognize this fluidity between information and knowledge. They provide learners with the factual basis they need, then guide them through activities and discussions that encourage the application and internalization of this information. 

    Crafting Learning Programs: A Dual Approach 

    • Program Design: When designing a learning program, it’s important to first lay out the informational content clearly and then build upon it with activities that promote knowledge development. This might include a mix of lectures for information dissemination and interactive workshops for knowledge application. 
    • Goals and Outcomes: The goals should reflect a balance between understanding the information (know-what) and applying the knowledge (know-how). For example, a leadership training program might include information on leadership theories (information) and simulations for handling real-life leadership challenges (knowledge). 
    • Materials and Methods: The materials and teaching methods should cater to both ends of the spectrum. Digital platforms like CLANED can be instrumental here, as they can house informational content (like readings and lectures) and also facilitate knowledge-building activities (like discussions, projects, and opportunities for collaborative learning). 

    Assessing Learning: A Comprehensive Approach 

    • Assessment Methods: Assessments should evaluate both the retention of information and the ability to apply knowledge. This could mean a combination of traditional tests (for information recall) and practical assignments or presentations (for knowledge application). 
    • Feedback and Adaptation: Continuous feedback mechanisms help in adjusting the learning process, ensuring that both informational and knowledge aspects are being effectively addressed. 

     Summary of Actions to Ensure Desired Outcomes 

    • Conduct a Needs Analysis: Clearly define whether the learning objectives are information or knowledge oriented. 
    • Align Materials and Methods: Choose instructional materials and teaching methods that align with the defined objectives. 
    • Implement Appropriate Assessments: Ensure that assessment methods match the type of learning – whether it’s assessing the recall of information or the application of knowledge. 
    • Foster an Adaptive Learning Environment: Be prepared to adjust methods and materials based on learner feedback and performance, ensuring that the approach remains effective and aligned with the learning goals. 

    Harnessing the Spectrum of Information and Knowledge  

    As we conclude our exploration of the nuanced relationship between information and knowledge, it’s clear that the key to effective learning and development lies in the harmonious integration of both.

    In our data-rich world, the ability to transform raw information into actionable knowledge is not just an academic skill but a fundamental requirement for success in any professional field.

    This transformation process, illuminated by insights from neuroscience, highlights the importance of not just accumulating facts, but cultivating the ability to think critically, solve problems, and innovate.  

    For course creators, instructors, and learners, the challenge is to navigate the information-knowledge spectrum skilfully. By recognizing when a learning goal is information-driven and when it is knowledge-driven, and by adapting materials, methods, and assessments accordingly, we can ensure that our educational endeavours are both informative and transformative.

    Digital platforms like CLANED play a pivotal role in this journey, offering the tools, environments and knowledge necessary for nurturing both the acquisition of information and the development of knowledge.  

    In essence, the effective blending of information and knowledge in learning experiences mirrors the broader spectrum of reality in which we operate. As we equip learners with the factual basis they need and guide them towards applying this information, we are preparing them not just to know, but to understand, to apply, and to innovate.

    Truely effective learning and development is therefore not about choosing between information and knowledge, but about understanding their interplay and using it to fuel continuous growth, adaptation, and excellence. 

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