We hear a lot about ‘understanding’ in education: it is a common curriculum and assessment term, particularly in ‘generic’ models such as Bloom’s Taxonomy. It is very common for people to talk about ‘conceptual understanding’ in a wide range of subjects: in history education the idea of unpacking ‘conceptual understanding’ has been the major focus of history education researchers over the last couple of decades.
But what actually is understanding?
Sadly, the Oxford English Dictionary is not too helpful here, providing 14 major definitions of the term, and none of these terms seem to get that close to what those working in education mean when they start talking about ‘understanding’ or ‘conceptual understanding’. So let’s pick this apart in a bit more detail. In this blog post I’m going to look at three common definitions of ‘understanding’ and I’m going to take these apart a bit in order to suggest that ‘understanding’ is actually the same thing as ‘knowing’.
(1) Understanding is being able to apply something in practice
This is one common way in which people talk about understanding, and here we turn ‘understanding’ into the ability to do something, perhaps with a degree of fluency or mastery. So, for example, I understand Pythagoras’ Theorem if I am able to calculate the length of the hypotenuse from the lengths of the opposite and adjacent. Philosophically speaking, this is what is normally called ‘know-how’ – in contradistinction to ‘know-that’. It is also distinct from ‘ability’: knowing-how to do something means not only that I can do something, but that I know how to do it.
This is perhaps not a bad definition of what people might mean when they talk about ‘understanding’, but it has its weaknesses. If I say, for example, that I ‘understand medieval kingship’, does that mean that I know how to be a medieval king? Probably not, and indeed we would not expect someone to be a medieval king before saying that they ‘understand’ medieval kingship. We might say that someone ‘understands’ medieval kingship if they can tell someone else about it, but I would argue that, if you know about something, you necessarily can tell someone else about it. There is, I would suggest, such a close association between language and knowledge (given that all claims to knowledge have to be expressed in language) that we would probably question whether someone knows something if they cannot tell us about it.
Overall, however, I can live with the idea that ‘understanding’ means ‘knowing how to do something’: if this is the case, then we can ditch the term ‘understanding’ and just be more precise and say ‘x knows how to do y’. Often, however, those getting into curriculum theory like to mean something more when they use the word ‘understanding’.
(2) Understanding is more complex than knowing
Another claim about understanding is that it means to grasp something in greater complexity than ‘merely’ knowing it. This is common in taxonomies of learning objectives (such as Bloom’s) where we say someone has reached a higher level if one ‘understands’ something in comparison to ‘knowing’ it. ‘Understanding’ is held up as a ‘higher-order’ achievement: if I ‘understand’ something, then I have in some way done better than if I simply ‘know’ something (it is amazing how often adverbs such as ‘simply’ or ‘merely’ get put in front of the word ‘know’).
This is however a very weak definition of ‘understanding’. Let’s stick with medieval kingship. I would claim to understand medieval kingship better than my Year 7 pupils, but I do not claim to understand it better than Professor Rosamond McKitterick. What do I mean, therefore, when I say I understand medieval kingship? Is it the case that my Year 7 pupils ‘know’ about medieval kingship, but that I understand it? Or do I merely ‘know’ about it, and Professor McKitterick is the one who actually understands it?
It is of course a ridiculous line of argument. ‘Understanding’ cannot logically mean grasping something in greater detail as there is no ‘threshold’ at which one can suddenly claim to ‘understand’ medieval kingship. In reality, when I say that Professor McKitterick understands medieval kingship better than I do, what I am saying is that she knows a great deal more about it than I do as a consequence of the fact that she has dedicated a whole lifetime to studying it. It is therefore nonsensical to say that ‘understanding’ means knowing something in greater detail: we can keep our life nice and simple here by just saying ‘x knows more about y than z’.
It is as this point that people usually chirp up and start talking about links (particularly the kind of people into SOLO). They say “but understanding means being able to make links…”. And thus we get to (3).
(3) Understanding means making links between things
This is one of the most common definitions given of ‘understanding’, which is that if someone understands something – let’s call it Idea 1 – then they are able to link it to something else – let’s call that Idea 2. On this model I can know ‘Idea 1’ and I can know ‘Idea 2’ but if I can talk about Idea 1 and its relationship to Idea 2 then I have understood.
But there’s a problem here: can I not just say “I know there is a link between Idea 1 and Idea 2”? Is not linking Idea 1 and Idea 2 together not simply an example of the growth of knowledge? As my knowledge becomes more and more complex, I add new ideas to my existing ideas and I integrate them in various ways. Sometimes I might take an existing idea and break it down further. In all of this, though, I am simply saying that I know more than I used to know. If I have linked Idea 1 and Idea 2 then I can claim to know
(a) Idea 1
(b) Idea 2
(c) There is a link between Idea 1 and Idea 2
I can see why people want to add an additional category to ‘knowledge’ here: it is because some people equate ‘knowledge’ with ‘factoid’, meaning a standalone piece of information. But knowledge is much richer and more complex than this. Let’s take an example. Imagine that I had uttered the following sentence and you wanted to work out what I ‘know’ and what I ‘understand’:
(d) “Some historians have claimed that imperialism played a role in causing the First World War”.
Now I could try and pick this sentence apart and work out where the ‘knowledge’ is and where the ‘understanding’ is. Presumably I know about imperialism. Or, perhaps I understand it as a concept? I know that events in the past have a variety of causes that interact in different ways… or do I mean that I understand the idea of causation in history? To utter this claim and be justified in believing it I would need to know what a historian is and that they make claims about the past… or is it that I understand the practice of historians? I also must know about the First World War… or is it that I understand it???
By trying to distinguish here between ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ we get ourselves into a right old tangle. It would even be funny, if huge amounts of time and effort were not currently wasted on trying to distinguish ‘knowledge’ from understanding. The reality is that I could express my understanding here as a collection of ‘know-that’ statements operating at a variety of levels of abstraction.
I have no doubt at all that some will take issue with this, and it is not at all my intention to play down the importance of learning about abstract or disciplinary concepts: to the contrary, I think learning about these things is very important. What I want to suggest, however, is that we need to employ a version of Ockham’s Razor when talking about curriculum and assessment. It is already hard enough! Making ‘understanding’ a thing serves to obfuscate what we are actually talking about. If we mean ‘knows how to do or apply something’, then we are talking about knowledge, or knowing how. Otherwise, we are almost certainly talking about ‘knowing-that’ at a variety of levels of complexity.
We have been conditioned in the field of education to be afraid of the word ‘knowledge’ and, perhaps because of this, to dress it up as something else. It’s about time that we stripped away these confusions and got back to the thing at the heart of teaching: knowledge.
Do take a look at Greg Ashman’s post on this: https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2015/06/13/teaching-for-understanding/