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Cooks vs Chefs: A Case for Conceptual Understanding+ #75

+Upcoming Events

I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way – by rote, or something. Their knowledge is so fragile! -Richard P. Feynman, Renowned Physicist

Hi, this is the GenWise team– we bring out this newsletter to help parents and educators to complement the work of formal schools and associated systems. We can help our children thrive in these complex times only by exchanging ideas and insights and working together. 

We are also a founder-member of the Gifted India Network– if you are interested in issues related to gifted education and talent development, an easy way to keep updated about talks, programs and resources is to join the Gifted India Network telegram channel (

We are excited to reach the 75th post of our newsletter! To celebrate this milestone, we are reposting one of our most popular posts about conceptual understanding.

Parents, School Leaders and Teachers- we are at the cusp of major changes in the world because of recent developments in AI with generative tools like ChatGPT. Please join us at 1130 AM IST on Sunday, April 2 for a session on this topic (more details in the upcoming events section)

Cooks vs Chefs: A Case for Conceptual Understanding

This post is a short version of a longer and more detailed piece that you can read here. You can also watch a 1 hour discussion on this topic here, from a panel discussion we held last year.

Can we see an object in a completely dark room after some time? Where does the mass of a large tree weighing several tonnes come from…given that it started off as a seed that weighed just a few grams? Such questions can puzzle even the best among us. This is because developing conceptual understanding requires ‘connecting the dots’ between different things we learn, that are seemingly unrelated.

While the ‘exam economy’ places little value on conceptual understanding, for someone looking at long-term learning, it is clear that factual knowledge and procedural skills must be accompanied with conceptual understanding. Conceptual understanding is important, even if it takes more time initially, because-

Disconnected learning makes things more difficult than they need to be. e.g. a child not seeing the connection between ratios, percentages, fractions and decimals may resort to arbitrary procedures

Learning is fragile when disconnected. Without an understanding of foundational concepts, further learning is built on a weak edifice. Unlearning wrong ideas later can be quite painful. 

Aiming for conceptual understanding, requires active engagement with connecting different ideas  and builds the capability to ‘think from first principles’.

There is a striking example of the value of conceptual learning from a researcher, Liping Ma, who studied the different methods in teaching subtraction employed by US teachers vis-a-vis Chinese teachers. Take the sum


In the US, students are expected to ‘borrow’ 1 from 5, subtract 9 from 12 to get 3 in the units place, subtract 1 from 4 to get 3 in the tens place to arrive at the answer of 33. In contrast in China, students would perform the same subtraction by ‘regrouping’ the numbers in question. Thus a student may perform the subtraction by doing (40 + 12)- (10 + 9)= (40-10) + (12-9)= 30 + 3= 33. 

Liping Ma found that Chinese students significantly outperformed American students on such questions on international tests like TIMSS. Her research shows that lacking an understanding of the procedure they were employing, American students tended to slip up; some students even felt anxious about the procedure because of ‘borrowing 1 from 5 and not returning it’.

Elon Musk has spoken about the importance of thinking from first principles, which is closely related to conceptual understanding in my opinion. He explains how thinking from first principles is needed to innovate and uses the analogy of a chef vs a cook to make his point. 

“The chef is a trailblazer, the person who invents recipes. He knows the raw ingredients and how to combine them. The cook, who reasons by analogy, uses a recipe. He creates something, perhaps with slight variations, that’s already been created. If the cook lost the recipe, he’d not know how to cook the dish. The chef, on the other hand, understands the flavor profiles and combinations at such a fundamental level that he doesn’t even use a recipe. He has real knowledge as opposed to know-how.”

To sum up, there’s nothing wrong with being a ‘cook’; in fact we all need to be ‘cooks’ in many areas of life, following certain recipes. But there may be areas in life where we want to be chefs…. we want to be trailblazers, and for that we need to work towards conceptual understanding and developing the capability to think from first principles.

If you would like to get a feel for the conceptual approach we take in our courses, we recommend taking the ‘Concepts Quiz’ at for children or for grownups. If you would like to discuss the quiz questions after taking it, you can write to The quiz has questions across Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics.

Upcoming Events

For further details of the below programs, please send a Whatsapp message, or call-

Eklavya- 7046466866

Sapna- 9821112090

Preparing Children for an AI-Driven Future (Online), Sun, Apr 2, 1130 AM

We invite parents, teachers and school leaders to join us on Sunday, from 11:30 -12:30pm IST, for an insightful webinar on this topic. Our expert speaker, Navin Kabra, a computer scientist and senior Genwise mentor, will share his insights on the latest developments in artificial intelligence and how we can equip our children to thrive in a rapidly changing world.

During the webinar, Navin will provide valuable guidance on how to prepare our children for a future where artificial intelligence plays a prominent role. This is a unique opportunity to learn from an expert in the field and gain practical strategies for helping your child succeed in a world that’s being shaped by AI.

Don’t miss out on this informative and thought-provoking webinar. Register here now to secure your spot.

Gifted Summer Program (Gr. 6-10)- May 2023, MAHE Campus, Manipal

The program is exclusively for gifted students who are top performers on Ei-ASSET Talent Search (Ei- ATS). If you do not have an ATS score, but are interested in the program, please contact us with your ASSET scores. If you haven’t taken ASSET recently, you can take it here. More details of the program and registration links available here.

Younger students moving from Grade 4 to Grade 5 this year, can attend this online program.

Residential Internship Program for High School Students May 2023, MAHE Campus, Manipal- GenWise is offering  a 2-week ‘Residential Internship’ program from May 14 to May 20, 2023 at MAHE campus, Manipal. In this program, students finishing grades 10 and 11 will be introduced to various opportunities, as well as issues that need to be considered before they embark on their dream life journey, beyond school.

The program design will be finetuned based on the requirements and interests of the incoming students. Students will be required to express their areas of interest a month before the program startis, to enable us to finetune the plan and the projects offered. 60% of the program focuses on providing domain exposure and making students aware of the life skills they need to develop to set and attain their goals. And 40% of the program is spent on project work. For more details click here, and register for the program here.

Gifted Summer Program International (Gr. 6-10)- July 2023, MAHE Campus, Manipal

The program is exclusively for gifted students from UAE and students on the international calendar from India and other countries. Top performers on Ei-ASSET Talent Search (Ei- ATS) are eligible to apply for the program. If you do not have an ATS score, but are interested in the program, please contact us with your ASSET scores. If you haven’t taken ASSET recently, you can take it here.

For more details, and to register, visit this page.


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