I read an interesting post by Debra Kidd today about how, in history and other subjects, we should aim not just to know, but also to understand. I have written before about knowledge and understanding, and reading the post made me reflect further on some of the problems associated with trying to make this distinction between what it means ‘to know’ something and ‘to understand’ something. I am going to use this post to explore this a little further, and set out some further thoughts on the matter.
In Debra’s post, she at one point writes about ‘naming’ and ‘understanding’. The following is a quotation:
That they can’t just name rivers and mountains, but that they understand how mankind is at the mercy of our natural environment as much as we are able to control aspects of it.
Here, ‘naming’ is being used to indicate something basic and simplistic, while the verb ‘understand’ is being used to refer to something more complex and sophisticated. But, if you will excuse an example, consider for a moment a medical diagnosis. A patient with a particularly rare condition turns up in hospital, showing a wide range of nasty symptoms. Let’s imagine that this patient sees an experienced consultant who furiously works away at the puzzle in front of her. Perhaps she is one of the few people in the country, or indeed the world, who can diagnose this condition. Eventually, having exhausted all the possibilities and dead-ends and red-herrings, she concludes, triumphantly, by naming the disease. A doctor who names a disease. A detective who names the culprit. A art gallery director who names Da Vinci as the artist of a newly-discovered painting. In all of these cases, ‘naming’ is the product of a exceptional degree of expertise, and the ability to name in these cases is anything but basic and simplistic.
These sorts of example are, for me, why verbs make poor indicators of complexity or difficulty in education. Words that are often associated with simple tasks (such as ‘recall’) can in fact be used to describe highly complex tasks: a pianist who can recall an entire Mozart sonata from memory is not doing something simple, and neither is an actor recalling a complex soliloquy. To turn this the other way, words that are often used to indicate more complex activities – such as ‘to analyse’, ‘to evaluate’ or ‘to create’ – can refer to very basic things. I can, after all, create a puddle by pouring water on the floor.
Before I am misinterpreted here, this should not be taken as meaning that verbs are all interchangeable. I think, in more or less subtle ways, we do tend to use words such as ‘evaluate’ in some contexts to mean something different from ‘analyse’. The OED helpfully lists all sorts of different ways in which these words are used. Rather, the point I am making is that the meaning of these words is (a) not sufficiently black-and-white to enable us to use them to rank the complexity of educational objectives and (b) the object that the verb takes says a great deal more about the complexity of the task than the verb itself.
This is why I have argued on a number of occasions that we should just be a lot more relaxed about the verbs we use in education. It is not that I think them unimportant, but rather that I think them a good deal less important than is normally assumed. If we place our emphasis on verbs as determiners of sophistication or complexity, then it a very easy step to start saying things like “our aim in education is to get pupils analysing, evaluating and creating”, without giving much attention to what we want them analysing, evaluating or creating.
In terms of ‘what’, I absolutely cannot quibble with the list of things that Debra suggests children should learn, which include:
- who built [Hadrian’s Wall] and why and to be able to map out the layout of the barracks
- there were black skinned soldiers [on Hadrian’s Wall] who had marched from as far as Syria
- migration and population movements have always been with us
- the pitfalls of power
- how mankind is at the mercy of our natural environment as much as we are able to control aspects of it
- our capacity to destroy is matched by our capacity to create
- the best that has been said and done in a whole range of cultures as well as our own
- the best that is to be said and done may well be yet to come. From them [the pupils].
All of these are things I want pupils to learn. These are the important things that we should be arguing over. Once we have decided that pupils should learn about the ‘pitfalls of power’, then there is a complex task ahead of us in determining what that means, what examples we should use, what misconceptions might arise from these examples, and how what we teach fits in as a part in some greater whole. Therein lies the intellectual challenge of teaching, and it is to this that our collective professional efforts ought to be focused. Worrying over whether the verb ‘know’, ‘understand’ or something else can best be put in front of those bullet points is, in my view, unlikely to result in a better-quality curriculum or educational experience for the pupil.
So this is why, to return to the title of this blog post, I think the question of whether pupils ‘know’ or ‘understand’ rather misses the point. If you and I feel happier using the word ‘understand’ rather than ‘know’, then we can, but let’s not pretend that we in doing so have created a more complex or sophisticated set of learning objectives.
For me, counterintuitively, a knowledge-rich curriculum is not about whether we use the word ‘know’ or not. It’s about placing the emphasis on what we want them to know. This is a subtle but crucial distinction.