Superficial Knowledge versus Profound Knowledge and Why Profound Knowledge is Essential

In my early days of being a superintendent, I was an active member in a Superintendent’s Leadership Network with The Schlechty Center. Through this experience, I was able to interact and learn from Phillip Schlechty, George Thompson and several like-minded superintendents. Phil passed away a few years ago, but the Schlechty Center is still having a positive impact on public education throughout the country.

Being a part of this network challenged my thinking and enabled me to go deeper in my own understanding of learning. Hence, the following is my perspective on the difference between superficial knowledge and profound knowledge based on conversations with Phil and others, various readings, reflecting, and my experience in public education.

Superficial Knowledge versus Profound Knowledge

Superficial knowledge is short lived. It is memorizing something for a test and forgetting it a few days later. It is surface knowledge.

When I hear students say they are “cramming for a test” or “I will know it when I see it on the test.” in reference to vocabulary words or definitions, ? I recognize this as superficial knowledge. We sometimes refer to this as regurgitation.

Profound knowledge is having a deep understanding of something and as a result being able to retain this knowledge over time, refine and add to this knowledge, and apply it to new situations.


Examples of superficial knowledge are memorizing a sequential list of presidents of the United States or capitals of each state and then forgetting as time passes.

Whereas, profound knowledge might be a result of knowing the history of each state and perhaps having a connection – something that makes this knowledge relevant to the learner, such as visiting a specific capital or maybe reading a historical biography that helps the learner make a meaningful connection to one of the capitals. Profound knowledge is knowing who was president when (not necessarily knowing the specific dates, but maybe knowing the general time period) because the learner has a deep understanding of history and how each president influenced history. For example, when my husband Neal and I visited Boston, we made significant connections to a documentary we had previously watched about John Adams. Our knowledge was deeper than just memorizing Boston as the capital of Massachusetts or John Adams as the second president of the United States. Neal and I both made meaningful connections about the context, dynamics, and motivation of the leaders during that time period. Our learning was anchored by our own experiences and this caused us to want to learn more. (Much more than we previously learned through our traditional school experiences.)

Another example of superficial knowledge is merely memorizing the periodic table without a real understanding of the significance, interplay between elements and the impact on our daily life. On the other hand, profound knowledge is a result of learners  understanding how the interplay between elements impacts their daily life such as why ice floats in your drink, why onions make your eyes water, or why you can’t use laundry detergent in the dishwasher. (I have to stop writing about the periodic table ? because I have a superficial understanding, yet I took Chemistry in high school and college. ? I think that sort of makes my point.)

Another example of superficial knowledge is “learning” new vocabulary words by memorizing definitions. Conversely, when learners have profound knowledge, they understand the meaning and nuances of these newly acquired words. As a result, they take ownership of these new words and incorporate them within their writing and daily conversations to better express their thoughts and ideas.

Why is Profound Knowledge Important?

First, we must recognize the difference between superficial knowledge and profound knowledge. Second, we must understand profound knowledge is what is needed to be true lifelong learners. In essence, profound knowledge enables us to make connections to previous learning and live a more robust life as a continuous learner.

I am not saying that all superficial knowledge is not valued. I think memorizing some things can be helpful in some circumstances. For example, it is convenient to have instant recall of multiplication facts. (However, I can also make a strong case for children “playing” with numbers and “inventing strategies” which help them fully develop their sense of numeracy and in this case understanding that 5×9 is five groups of 9 and the reverse of this, 9 groups of 5. Hence, this level of understanding is shifting from superficial to profound knowledge.) Another area that superficial knowledge is helpful is memorizing passwords, which is my nemesis ?.

I think Phillip Schlechty said it best, “Superficial knowledge, the knowledge required to pass school tests at a given point in time, is no longer adequate. Students must remember what they have learned and they must learn how to learn on their own.”

I agree with Phil, which is why we must be in the business of ensuring all students experience profound learning which leads to profound knowledge.

How do we inspire all students to experience profound learning?

If we want students to acquire profound knowledge, they must be genuinely engaged in their learning and own their learning. To accomplish this, we must create experiences or capitalize on existing experiences that cause students to be genuinely engaged in their learning. Stated in reverse, when learners are genuinely engaged in their learning, there is a greater likelihood profound learning will occur.

What is genuine engagement and how do we create the conditions to make this a reality? Stay tuned for more blog posts on this topic.

Please share your experiences and thoughts below:

Share examples of when you acquired superficial or profound knowledge. How would you describe the difference?

As an educator, what could you do to increase the opportunities for your learners to acquire more profound knowledge?

As a parent or grandparent, what could you do to increase the opportunities for your children or grandchildren to acquire more profound knowledge?

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4 thoughts on “Superficial Knowledge versus Profound Knowledge and Why Profound Knowledge is Essential”

  1. What a perfect blog post to start off the new year. I just had this conversation with a few colleagues today! You put it into the words to make it simple. I have since shared your blog with them in hopes that they are able to make the same connections from your beautifully written post! I must say that the majority of my schooling was all about superficial learning. If I’m honest with myself (and you), the beginning of my teaching career was also about seeking superficial knowledge from the learners in my charge. Now that I KNOW better, I must DO better! Thank you for reminding me it’s about being a life long learner and truly “connecting the dots” for as many learners as possible! I do have one question I’d like to get your feedback on…How do teachers focus on pushing learners towards making the connections you talk about, when profound learning takes place, when our state/country is SO foucused on scores from tests that only assess SUPERFICIAL knowledge?

    1. Shannon,
      First, thanks for posting a comment on my blog. Like you, I rarely acquired profound knowledge in school. I jumped through the hoops.
      You are right, test scores are king in our state and country. It is a billion dollar industry and children are literally paying the price. I think we need to formulate new ways to assess learning. I am starting to read more in this area too. Test Sense is a helpful site that is trying to answer this same question.
      I also think we need to build more capacity with parents in this area. Let’s keep learning and dialoguing about this.
      Thanks again for your post,

  2. Another great post, Suzanne!
    As a school board member, I always supported and encouraged more learning “experiences”. One example was our Ecology Days where the entire 4th grade made a trip to U.S. Forest Service Wilderness Area where agents had set up learning stations near the river about water tables and water pollution, the importance of the forest ecosystem, how a controlled burn works with prevention of forest fires and enriching the soil, how to be safe when you’re in the forest, etc. They even had a campsite set up and spent time with the kids reminding them of good habits for camping that will keep them safe and keep the camp grounds in good condition for future campers. The kids would talk about it for days! Teachers had material they could tie in with every subject (including fine arts) upon their return to the classroom.

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