Know-how and know-why versus know-what

A few days ago, I set a cricket question for my twitter followers. To be precise, I set a question for those among my followers who were interested in cricket, interested enough to try and answer the question.

The question was simple: Herschelle Gibbs holds the record. Vinod Kambli was the previous holder. What is the record?

I will come to the answer later. Before that I want to spend a little time on the question.

I set it that way for many reasons.


First, just Googling it should not work. This is important. Why?

I like to think of the process of answering questions as  a voyage of discovery,  a journey of learning. Today, the first port of call in almost any such journey is the internet. You can choose the particular type of vessel you want to use on the journey (Google, Dogpile, MammaFacebook, Twitter, Quora, WolframAlpha, Copernic, Bing, Mahalo, Phone-A-Friend, Ask-The-Audience or whatever else catches your fancy). [Incidentally, feel free to add any question-answering tools you use and wish to share with others, just comment below and I will summarise comments in a follow-up post as needed. Also incidentally, does Bing really (and recursively) stand for But It’s Not Google?]

The journey, the voyage, is more important than the vessel.

And the discovery, the learning, is more important than the journey. It’s the whole point of the journey.


Which brings me to the second point of any question: Answering the question should teach you something; at the very least, it should reinforce some prior learning. Let me give you an example.

Some years before finishing school, we were given an intriguing maths question to solve. We were told that there was one, and only one, ten-term arithmetical progression (or “AP”) of prime numbers between unity and 3000.  And we were asked to find it. [Yes, I have written about this before, some years ago. But please humour me, I want to take you somewhere else this time].

I must have been 14 or so. And I was enthralled by the question. Not because I found the question itself interesting, but because I was really enjoying myself trying to figure out how to get to the answer. And why I would get to the answer.

How. And why. Not what.

[I won’t spoil it for the first-time reader, I’m not going to give you the answer here. If you want to know, then please ping me via twitter, details on sidebar here,  or comment below or even “inbox me on facebook” (the way my youngest daughter’s generation describe emailing).]


The third point, as important as the first two, is that answering the question should be fun. Again, an example from my teens in Calcutta. One of my friends had heard about a competition, I think he said it was in Punch, where you were given a “traditional” trivia answer and asked to formulate a non-traditional question. The example given was: A: Dr Livingstone, I presume. Alternative Q: What is your full name, Dr Presume?. [If I remember right, the winning entry in that competition was: A: Crick. Alternative Q: What is the sound made by a Japanese camera?]

The process of answering a question should be a voyage of discovery, a journey during which you learn something, and one where you enjoy yourself in the process.

As a result of answering the question, you should be able to answer most, if not all, questions belonging to that class of question. You know that cliched saying “I may not know the answer to the question, but I know a man who does”? There’s some value, some truth, in what it implies. It’s probably better expressed in the saying “It is better to teach a man to fish than to give a man a fish”. Passing on learning is far more valuable than passing on a short-term, “single-use” answer.

Knowing how to get to an answer is often more important than knowing the answer. And knowing why is the foundation for remembering the how.

This principle colours the way I view much of education. There must have been a time when people used slide rules incessantly in classes involving numerate subjects. By the time I was at school, they were already passing out of favour. In similar vein, my generation had to carry our own “log table” and “trig table” books, but I think we were the last “batch” at school to engage so closely with logarithmic and trigonometric tables. The generation after me learnt to use scientific calculators in anger.

And the generations of today know their way around the web. Or should do. [Provided, of course, they have access to the web, something I regard as a fundamental right of the 21st century, given the incredibly positive impact it can make on education, health and welfare].


Learning by watching and copying has been the way of the world for aeons. Sometimes I’m surprised by the way that gets forgotten in some spheres of education. There’s too much focus on the answer, the “what”, and not enough on the process and the rationale, the how and why. If a student can answer a question correctly by surreptitiously peeking at someone else’s work, then it’s a poor question. If a student can answer a question correctly by simply engaging with Google and entering a “raw” search term, then it’s a poor question. If a student can answer a question correctly by simply looking up Wikipedia, then it’s a poor question.

Google and Wikipedia are tools. Like slide rules and log tables and scientific calculators. Or even abaci.

Knowing how to use the tool properly is important. If the tool is designed to provide enjoyment as well, even better. Concentrating on the answer provided by the tool is all quite wrong.


If you’ve read this far, then you’re probably someone who is sympathethic to my way of thinking. So humour me a little longer.

When I asked the unGoogleable question in Twitter, an old friend and colleague, Dominic Sayers, tweeted the following:

So now I have to come up with another unGoogleable cricket question.

Here goes:

On a cricket scorecard, an asterisk is used to denote the captain, and a “dagger” to denote the wicketkeeper. Since the dawn of Test cricket, with thousands of matches played, there have only been 26 “asterisk-daggers”, players who, simultaneously, kept wicket and captained the team.

26. Over thousands of Tests.

During this time, there have only been five instances where a Test has involved a “double asterisk-dagger“, where a wicketkeeper-captain has faced a wicketkeeper-captain.

These instances involved only five specific asterisk-daggers: one three times, three twice, and one just once. Name the wicketkeeper-captain who has faced a wicketkeeper-captain in a Test match just once and once only in his career.


28 thoughts on “Know-how and know-why versus know-what”

  1. Your post makes sense when we come from the idea of “Learning by watching and copying has been the way of the world for aeons. ”

    as in ‘we are in a learning mode’. But not if you read it without that mindset.

    “I like to think of the process of answering questions as a voyage of discovery, a journey of learning.” which i complete disagree with – if it would be just about answering the question, because then you would suggest that ‘dabbeling around’ is a better way to answer it. Which is not what you are saying, I get that.

    In regards to education and learning: It is not learning by watching and copying but especially by starting to make connections, by being encouraged and challengend on moving further and outside of the comfort of your own knowledge. Which again means that you have to understand what you try to learn – sometimes it really is just about repeating something (mostly manual) time over time to see why and get a feel for how to do it better.

    “Answering the question should teach you something; at the very least, it should reinforce some prior learning” Not necessarily. In single terms, of single learnings, maybe, but if you are a pupil and have to go through a length of learning, you can try to make each thing valuable and relate it back again and again, but I believe that sometimes it is about “learning stuff for one or two bigger pictures / goals” and not trying to tie and loop everything back with everything.

    “So now I have to come up with another unGoogleable cricket question.”
    This is really great – for somebody who like and enjoys doing stuff just for the sake of it, or if somebody who is into cricket. I am neither – so what is your ungoogable question teach me and am I as the ‘learner’ good or bad because of it and equally are you as the teacher good or bad? :)

  2. While I know nothing of cricket (but always enjoyed it when featured in episodes of Monty Python), I loved this article as it reminded me of my Dad who I lost this year. Years ago, when heatedly discussing a point of semantics on the New Testament (I went to school to be a Minister), he said something that has stuck with me for years – “I have learned to find comfort in mystery.” While initially I felt this was a cop out, I later came to realize the wisdom of his sentiment, which I would compare to your point on the value of seeking versus “facts.” For instance, when speaking about faith (like we were) how can you simply google God? ‘Facts’ about faith (of any kind) need to be shared and they’ll be potentially adopted versus learned. And the journey should be fun, but also rigorously examined to be of true value. It can’t be immediately discovered or bookmarked. More like ever-noted.

  3. @nicole thanks for the comment. What I was planning to do was to explain how to solve the prime number and also the cricket question, and why that was important…. in my next post, after I see the comments…. until then, I hope you found part of the post useful…. despite the cricket….

  4. @john my next post, while explaining how to answer the two questions, will touch upon your perspective. It’s an important one.

  5. Very intriguing. I love questions you can’t Google though I am surprised that many of them stay hard to Google once they have been answered – even now there isn’t an obvious google solution to the lowe st sco re without dismi ssals one.

  6. Learning by “watching and copying” is how we all learned to do extraordinarily tough things like… walking and talking. And the discovery/confirmation of “mirror neurons” makes this an even more worthy approach to learning/knowledge design. Alan Kay feels we have lost touch with this especially in highly technical, knowledge-based domains including computer science. There’s an ancient video of Alan discussing this (among other things) in a video that anyone involved with computing, the Internet, design, or learning of any kind really needs to watch and rewatch:

    Thanks for this post!

  7. @kathy hey that’s great. I shall watch Alan’s video tonight after cooking dinner. thanks for pointing it out to me.

  8. My comment is related to your postscript: Subsequent to your asking an ungoogleable question, it is very likely to become googleable? Your first cricket q became googleable after you posted the answer on Twitter; the AP and prime number is googleable because it became an Olympiad question; the new question will become googleable because somebody is going to post the answer here or some will learn how to answer it after reading your next post.

    I guess the next level of learning is to learn to come up with PRESENTLY ungoogleable questions?

  9. Hi JP,
    lovely question, I thought it was going to take me longer than ST to get his 100th century, but I think I managed it in about 20 minutes. It would have been relatively easy to construct query in boring old sql if I had wisden in a database, but that wasn’t the point.

    What is interesting is that I’m very unlikely now to ever forget the answer, so I hope I have it right.

    I hope one day to sit next to you on the cover boundary of a test match, at least for a couple of sessions.

  10. The answer to the second question is [correctly given but edited out to avoid spoiling it for those who may still wish to try it].

  11. @mark the answers will get googleable, and new questions will have to be set. there is a joy in setting unGoogleable questions, even if the state is temporary

  12. @aswath, yes Googleability will be a “present” thing, like trying to find pairs of words that yielded one and precisely one hit.

  13. @thomas that would be an enjoyable thing to do, though I wish I could have watched Viv Richards field in the covers. He dominated the space. And then destroyed it while batting….

  14. @suhrith you got the right answer, though you added some superfluous detail. I edited it out to give others a chance. hope you enjoyed it.

  15. It’s taking a bit longer than I hoped to get this onto, but that’s mainly because of doing nice stuff with my kids.

    Anyway the history of Lowest Unscored Score in test matches is as follows:

    Score / Date first scored / by
    14 / 1877-03-31 / HRJ Charlwood
    16 / 1880-09-06 / GJ Bonnor
    23 / 1880-09-06 / F Penn
    25 / 1881-12-31 / JM Blackham
    29 / 1882-08-28 / WL Murdoch
    44 / 1886-08-12 / A Shrewsbury snr
    46 / 1889-03-12 / R Abel
    60 / 1893-08-24 / AC Bannerman
    65 / 1896-03-02 / AJL Hill
    71 / 1896-03-02 / CW Wright
    76 / 1899-06-29 / J Worrall
    78 / 1910-01-01 / GA Faulkner
    110 / 1924-12-19 / WH Ponsford
    125 / 1939-03-03 / PGV van der Bijl
    139 / 1955-04-11 / ED Weekes
    171 / 1970-12-11 / IR Redpath
    186 / 1982-12-23 / Zaheer Abbas
    199 / 1984-10-24 / Mudassar Nazar
    218 / 1989-12-01 / SV Manjrekar
    224 / 1993-02-19 / VG Kambli
    228 / 2003-01-02 / HH Gibbs

    229 is the next lowest unscored score. I think I remember Mudassar Nazar getting the last unscored score below 200 but I hadn’t followed it since.

    I wonder if this is following a distribution of some sort? Can we predict when 229 will be scored?

  16. This question is eminently googleable, you know. Googleable as in, searchable on the Internet (specifically, in Cricinfo Statsguru). Here is the URL:;class=1;filter=advanced;keeper=1;orderby=start;size=200;template=results;type=batting;view=match

    I didn’t try to refine the query any further; that is the list of 206 tests where your 26 asterisk-daggers played. What I did was, I copy-pasted the output to LibreO Calc and then did a pivot table to see how many dates have two such asterisk-daggers listed (there are two false alarms too).

    You can use the query form to get only the list of the 26 asterisk-daggers.

    So, here is the list of those 5 instances:

    Andy Flower & LK Germon, NZ v ZIM, 13/1/1996
    Andy Flower & LK Germon, NZ v ZIM, 20/1/1996
    Mark Boucher & Khaled Mashud, SA v BAN, 18/10/2002
    Ridley Jacobs & Khaled Mashud, WI v BAN, 8/12/2002
    Ridley Jacobs & Khaled Mashud, WI v BAN, 16/12/2002

    This means:

    Khaled Mashud has faced an asterisk-dagger thrice.
    Andy Flower, L. K. Germon & Ridley Jacobs have faced an astersk-dagger twice.
    Mark Boucher has faced an asterisk-dagger once.

    So the answer to your question is Mark Boucher.

  17. Obiwan, what you did was a slightly longer version of what I did to confirm the question in the first place. I went to the same place as you did, but just added a column to reflect the start date of the Tests, ordered chronologically. Then I inspected the column looking for duplicates, found the same false positives (where two different matches started on the same day) and was left with the same five Tests and the same five people as you did.

    But what you didn’t wasn’t Googling. It was a lot more. You knew where to find the source data, how to order it, how to import it into something else, how to use the results. Someone else would write a program to access the dataset if she knew what it contained and how it was structured. Someone else would “know” the answer and use cricinfo to validate. Another would write in to StatsGuru.

    More than Google

  18. @clive I was trying to go a little further, by exposing some of the reasons why open data is useful…. but you’re right, I wanted to deal with the opportunity of making tacit knowledge explicit through wise use of social networks

  19. Come now, JP; for Bing to be one of those annoying infinite-recursive acronyms a la GNU, it would need to stand for Bing Is Not Google, wouldn’t it? ;)

  20. And I started to dig around your AP question (I’m proud to say I figured out the interval, just based on the limit and number of primes – what I didn’t find on my own was the starting value – but I was within 5% of it with my initial guess :)

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