Is ‘understanding’ a thing?

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.

Further reading

Do take a look at Greg Ashman’s post on this:

12 Comments on Is ‘understanding’ a thing?

  1. I’m so pleased you make the point about understanding not having a threshold. With my own children I noticed the assumption that understanding or ‘comprehension’ was all or nothing was a particular problem at primary level. It led to teachers saying children should be kept at lower levels of reading books as if understading was a thing children had at one reading level but would fail to have just one reading level up. In this context the belief in an all or nothing ‘thing’ called understanding was harmful as it meant children were less exposed to new vocabulary when in fact exposure to new vocab in reading is actually how vocabulary expands. I read Jane Eyre when primary aged. I wouldn’t necessarily advocate putting that book in a primary school library and my understanding was nothing like what it would be now but neither was the book a meaningless collection of words to me. I enjoyed it and I am sure it did me some good!

    • Our understanding changes with experience, maturity, etc. I was told to teach guided reading with books easier than the children could read. However, it made more sense to cover the knowledge that would prevent their understanding and dissecting language, etc than giving them easier books (which bored them and made them feel less mature!!).

  2. Interesting post which reaches compelling conclusions. A slight aside, but it strikes me that there is a link to be made here with the idea(/research) that we are very poor at judging against criteria and much better at comparing. Trying to quantify your ‘understanding’ (or knowledge) of medieval kingship is pointless, comparing it Professor McKitterick’s makes your actual level of understanding (knowledge) far clearer. Time to stop judging students’ ‘understanding’ as a distinct quality altogether…?

  3. Just to add I think this discussion about the nature of understanding is essential because it impacts on so many areas of education. You might remember I wrote about the distortions to exams of presuming knowledge is something standalone that should be assessed separately.

  4. Michael Fordham // 1 August 2015 at 09:43 // Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  5. Fieldwork Education (publishers of the IPC) distinguish their ‘learning goals’ as ‘knowledge’, ‘skills’ and ‘understanding’. I understand (know?) the problems you describe here as I struggle to interpret, teach and assess their prescribed nuggets of learning.

  6. tom gething // 1 August 2015 at 15:25 // Reply

    Somebody mentioned the IPC. Within the IPC framework they do divide ‘learning’ into knowledge, skills and understanding. In the assessment material they are very clear to give no specific guidance on how to assess understanding, except for this statement:

    ‘Understanding is personal and fluid; it comes and goes. Finding out about children’s developing understandings is almost entirely a matter or judgement’

    Make of this what you will, but what I believe the IPC are suggesting is that understanding exists on a continuum, from ignorant to omniscient. Fuzzy indeed.

    After reading your post I was considering whether indeed we should just drop the term ‘understanding’ from the educational lexicon but I think is still has a place. I was reminded of a time when I was a structural engineer and was asked to complete a very detailed structural analysis of the 300-year-old barn that the owner wished to convert into a home. There was not one beam or post that was either perfectly straight or even in cross-section. Trying to convert the structure for finite element analysis was a chore. I was talking about it with my senior colleague at the time and he commented, “Well, the thing is the guy that built this just understood structures”.

    I wonder whether understanding is so complicated to define and assess because it is something like processing accumulated knowledge to reach a conclusion or judgement?

  7. “By trying to distinguish here between ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ we get ourselves into a right old tangle. ”

    “Making ‘understanding’ a thing serves to obfuscate what we are actually talking about.”

    When you say “we” in both cases, I am not quite sure what you mean. I “know” what you are saying, but I don’t “understand” what you mean. I don’t get myself into a tangle. I don’t find the thing I am actually talking about obfuscated. I am not sure why websofsubstance and yourself get so hung up on this issue.

    I like the ideas of transfer and dealing with unfamiliar problems when talking about understanding. Understanding doesn’t diminish the value of “knowledge”, in fact understanding can only occur with knowledge. Knowledge will always come first in my view.

    If I tell you that in my house we use a “grizzxy” to “cgfrad” a “nhhtyr” then you know know this. If I ask you the question “In my house what might we use to cgfrad an nhhtyr?” then you would quite rightly answer…” a grizzxy of course…..doh”. You are of course correct because you know this.

    However you would have no idea what a”grizzxy” is. You do not know what “cgfrad” is.

    If I ask you “is there anything other than a grizzxy that I can use to cgfrad a nhhtyr?” you would not understand the question although you would know the question. If I am able to instantiate the concepts then I might argue that I understand it’s meaning. For me therefore, it is useful to know “why” rather than just “that” because once I know why I can transfer the knowledge to new situations.

    That is understanding for me and it is very useful. The fact that a person can transfer their knowledge to new situations is interesting and different to simply knowing that.

    If you find that using the term “understand” obfuscates then don’t use it. I find it useful.

    If someone can solve an unfamiliar problem, I really don’t care whether they do so due to more knowledge (in your world) or via understanding (in my world), it is solving the problem that is important. I will teach via understanding whereas you will teach knowledge.

    I like Dan Willingham’s explanation which I will quote from memory and probably not precisely…..that understanding is remembering in disguise.

    Interesting post.

    • Michael Fordham // 2 August 2015 at 09:24 // Reply

      Just on the specific example, first, as it is one commonly given on teacher training courses to make a distinction between ‘rote’ learning and ‘deep understanding’. Essentially there are two possible responses to your point.

      The first is that, if we take knowledge to be ‘justified true belief’ (which has been the dominant philosophical definition for around 2.5 millennia) then I must question whether I do know that you use a use a grizzxy to cgfrad a nhhtyr. I might believe this to be true, but I am probably not justified in believing this to be true as I do not know the meaning of the nouns “grizzxy” or “nhhtyr”, nor the meaning of the verb “cgfrad”.

      Alternatively, if you *do* think that I am justified in believing that (and therefore know it), or if you think that justification is not important in knowledge, then another response is possible. Under such a framing I might ‘know’ that you use a use a grizzxy to cgfrad a nhhtyr, but this is very limited knowledge. If I know what the two nouns and the verb mean, then I have more developed knowledge. I know (a) what a grizzly is, (b) what it means to cgfrad, (c) what a nhhtyr is and (d) that you use a grizzxy to cgfrad a nhhtyr. We have here therefore just another case of the (2) and (3) as I set out in my post: your example is one of growing complexity of knowledge. I do not need to resort to an additional construct (‘understanding’) in order to explain what is going on here.

      Finally, on the point of ‘well it’s useful for me but not for you so you don’t have to use it’. We do not live in a world where we are free to make such decisions ourselves. Various curricula make a distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’. Assessment mark schemes often include this distinction so if, for example, I am marking a pupils’ work for an exam board, I am required to use terms such as ‘understanding’, notwithstanding my concerns about the word identified above. The dominant orthodoxy at the moment is that ‘understanding is a thing’: I want to challenge that orthodoxy.

  8. Michael, I agree – I sometimes think of “knowledge” as being a large category which extends from pure recall at one end to “deep knowledge” at the other which contains what people think of as “understanding”, ie as U existing as a subset within K.

    The really serious thing for me is that so much energy gets wasted on trying to distinguish between the two; but when we’re measuring learning there are so many more useful things to be focusing on.

    I wonder whether one reason we get so tangled up on the issue of K/U is a linguistic one, ie the fact that these terns exist in English and so we must try to separate and define them? Do other languages have equivalent distinctions? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if in some places this K/U doesn’t exist and they’d be bemused that we’re even having this discussion!

  9. I largely agree, but I would contend that there are occasional circumstances where knowledge can be present without understanding. It is probably the case that we will not encounter extreme examples such as these in schools and so I agree that the distinction has limited pedagogical use, but there is surely a cognitive distinction which I will try to explain.

    A child can memorise five causes for an event from a textbook; say, five reasons why Khrushchev placed missiles on Cuba, without any understanding of the historical context of the Cold War or even what some of the substantive concepts mean. A teacher may gamble that since the quesiton “Explain why Khruschev placed missles on Cuba” appears so frequently on exams, then there in something to be gained from ‘drilling’ his weaker students to answer parrot-fashion.

    If the question comes up and the child writes those five things down are we not to give credit to them? The child has not explained anything. The child has not even understood the question, but even if it is just a conditioned response s/he has presented information which is clearly relevant to the question and must be credited with this. This is why some exam boards are forced into using the awful phrases ‘identifies factors’ and ‘explains factors’.

    It does not do to say that someone who writes a multi-causal essay simply knows the topic better. This is not just a continuum from a Year 7’s understanding to a professor’s. There is something different going on when a child regurgitates information unthinkingly. There are other examples such as worshippers ritually using Latin in Catholic services. If you were to ask them, do you know X piece of liturgy then they could repeat it, but not know its English meaning. Surely this is knowledge without understanding?

    You can quesiton whether knowledge conceived like this is of any use. You can question the ethics or the efficiency of teaching in this way. You can question whether it really is learning or education in any serious sense, but I would suggets there are times when knowing is distinct from understanding.

    • Michael Fordham // 4 August 2015 at 14:42 // Reply

      Interesting cases, but I think in all we can say simply that your person is simply lacking in knowledge. What can we say about someone who knows the words of the Latin liturgy but who does not know what it means? Well, we can say they have knowledge of the Latin liturgy, but not knowledge of what those words mean! Indeed, the in learning a language the word ‘I understand’ is essentially a short-hand for ‘I know what those words mean’. We can say therefore that someone who understands is someone who knows what words mean: again, this is a matter of knowledge.

      I think the whole ‘pupils regurgitate answers’ is far less common than people think, but in any case I would refer you to my response to Brian below. We can take two lines on this. First, we can say that – if knowledge is justified true belief – then someone who repeats back an answer to a question but who ‘understands’ neither the question nor the answers does not actually ‘know’ the answer. Alternatively, we could just say that this person has a very *limited* knowledge of the answers to the question, and that someone with more complex knowledge could give a better answer.

      I think both of these points really come back to a matter of ‘meaning’ – your argument is that someone ‘understands’ something if they know the meaning of something. I would say that knowing the meaning of something is a matter of knowledge.

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  1. The Dangerous Fantasy of Generalised Understanding | The Traditional Teacher
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