There are terms within education that we use with reckless abandon and as a result cause great levels of confusion. Understanding is one such word and its usage and our ‘understanding’ of it can have a significant effect on the learning we plan, deliver and assess. With multiple definitions and its broad usage in curriculum documents, philosophies of teaching and learning and as an indicator of the quality or depth of student learning it is a word we should better understand.
Simple usage of the term connects with the process of making meaning from the words we exchange in our communications. “I understand you” means that I believe I have correctly interpreted what you have said. At this level the skill of understanding relies upon ones capacity to translate words into knowledge. It is this usage of the word which later comes to cause difficulty as the cognitive powers required for this level of understanding are low compared to that required for what may be called “Understanding” in other contexts.
Even at simple levels we see that there can be difficulty in understanding one another. Misunderstandings occur frequently even when we are able to decode the messages being sent to us but miss the context, subtle nuances or hidden meanings of the message. Understanding rapidly becomes more complex when we are seeking to understand others whose context is different to ours. Culture, religion, ethnicity, gender and personal histories all impact the understanding that we are able to construct and we quickly enter a grey area where understandings vary from person to person.
In curriculum documents the term is used in mixed ways also. Understanding can be seen as something which exists either beyond or perhaps beside knowledge. "Students develop knowledge, understanding of and skills”. Understanding is something that students “demonstrate”, develop and seemingly possess or apply as implied by "Why is an understanding of environmental processes and interconnections essential for sustainable management of environments?”. While its usage in this context or triad makes it clear that is something other than just knowing it is not defined within the curriculum documents produced by NSW Educational Standards Authority (NESA) which prepares these documents.
The situation is made more difficult when applied to assessment. A student might have knowledge of a topic, concept or ideal but an understanding seems to imply something else. Here we need to have a clear definition of what it means to understand something and a lack of such clarity naturally leads to confusion. In the NESA Science K-10 syllabus "Students develop knowledge, understanding of and skills in applying the processes of Working Scientifically”. A student would thus be able to describe or demonstrate recall of the processes and utilise the skills of the process; both of which are easily assessed or made visible. The complexity comes in the gathering of evidence for the understanding of the process.
To solve this dilemma one must look beyond the syllabus and the work of Harvard’s Project Zero offers a useful solution in their Teaching for Understanding research and methodology. Tina Blythe in "The Teaching for Understanding Guide” offers the more detailed definition of “Understanding" that is required; a performance perspective. “The performance perspective says, in brief, that understanding is a matter of being able to do a variety of thought-provoking things with a topic, such as explaining, finding evidence and examples, generalising, applying, analogising, and representing the topic in new ways.” This leads to a definition with a focus on the ability or even disposition to apply what one knows to new situations, alternate contexts or to solve new problems. An individual may be able to solve a particular mathematical equation when it is presented in a manner they have previously experienced and this would demonstrate knowledge. Being able to apply the mathematical principles behind this equation to a different set of circumstances that the individual has not experienced would require and demonstrate understanding. Practical examples can make this distinction clear.
I can think of things that I know. I know that String Theory is one of the ideas presented to explain how all the little pieces of the universe fit together, but I know just as well that I don't Understand it. I know that Graham's number is too large to write on all the atoms in that universe and that it ends in a 7, but again I don't understand it. I have some limited knowledge but i am not able to apply or make use of this knowledge beyond a limited set of circumstances.
Alternatively, I know that in my class there are 25 learners and that each of them learn in different ways. I know that each of them have had unique histories and a vast range of experiences. I know that each individual will focus on different ideas in a lesson and will need different help. I Understand these things because in my teaching I am able to do something useful with that knowledge. I adjust how I teach to suit my learners.
The implications of this are clear, if we are to teach for understanding we need to include opportunities for students to develop, apply and demonstrate their understanding. Understanding can not be delivered into the minds of the students by the teacher as the wise sage dispensing wisdom. It is constructed through active engagement and play with the concepts. Students need time to get inside the concepts and see how they work, to explore new contexts and apply their learning. Teaching for understanding requires more time and makes covering great swathes of content difficult. The pay off is that it promotes transfer of learning to new situations and better prepares students for the multiple contexts they will be confronted beyond school.
By Nigel Coutts