Is it more important to understand than to know?

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.

8 Comments on Is it more important to understand than to know?

  1. Thank you Michael. I would say that the doctor et al are identifying rather than simply naming and that identifying consists of a complex array of knowledge as well as, perhaps, making a connection that few others would make. I’m not really sure where this semantic to-ing and fro-ing gets us really though. I think there is a little distinction in goals. If one’s goal is to know/identify/name/whatever the THING, then that’s one type of goal. If the goal is for children to make connections between different times, experiences and places, that’s still a form of knowing/identifying/naming/whatever but it has a different purpose. The knowledge is still necessary, but the teacher is bringing certain knowledge to the fore in line with the goals. That means that he/she might look at the same situation (Roman Britain/Hadrian’s Wall) from another perspective another time through another lens with another goal. I think that’s the distinction between a ‘purist’ knowledge-as-goal approach and a humanity-as-goal-approach. Knowledge is critical for both, but only takes us so far in one.

    • I guess I just don’t think it’s possible to have a ‘knowledge-as-goal’ approach that is not also a ‘humanity-as-goal’ approach. To learn more about the world is to be have a richer human experience, because we think with what we know (etc).

      • I can see how you might think this, but there is way too much evidence of knowledgeable people who lack humanity to be certain that if you teach knowledge the rest will follow. I think that things like compassion, humanity, creativity, collaboration, critical analysis etc need to be planned for as carefully as we might plan for knowledge. I see very few knowledge organisers indeed that explicitly plan for those things. We can nor more hope for them to happen as a consequence of knowledge than we can hope for comprehension to come as a consequence of phonics.

      • I’m just not sure how one teaches compassion. Do you say “You ought to feel this way”? If we are not saying that, then we are left with creating situations in which we are hoping that compassionate feelings might emerge, in which case we’re back to not actually teaching it explicitly. So, as a history teacher, I create lots of moments in my classroom where compassion might be felt, but I don’t have much control over whether they do feel compassion or not, and nor would I feel comfortable telling a child how they ought to feel about something.

  2. Just as a point of interest, when I worked as a dancer I could ‘recall’ dance steps really easily, in a similar way to which I find the recall of poetry, or lines from a play, a fairly simple thing. The ease and simplicity of my recall (I’m not even conscious of needing to make any effort to recall it) is partly born out of repetition, but mainly born out of my understanding – of the character in a play, of the emotions or themes or rhythms in a poem, and of how the steps are linked to the music in Swan Lake, for instance. The music literally ‘feeds’ you the steps when you are a dancer.

    One of the ways to teach compassion is to put children in situations where they can empathise with other people, by gaining a deeper understanding of their story, and what it must have felt like to be in that position. We found this when we visited Anne Frank’s house with our children – that the very act of being there somehow brought the situation to life for them. They referred back to it months later, as a moment of insight that brought history and its impact on people to life for them.

  3. Tom Burkard // 15 June 2018 at 06:46 // Reply

    I absolutely reject the notion that teachers ought to deliberately manipulate children’s emotions. As a matter of fact, I homeschooled my son when I discovered the extent to which he objected to being treated as an emotional toy. His mother had recently died, and his teachers insisted on helping him ‘grieve’. They were little better than emotional vampires, and he was much happier once he was out of their cluctches. The notion that our feelings are public property was explicit in the abomination of ‘circle time’.

  4. The philosophical concept of supervenience might be useful here. I came across it in discussions of mind/body dualism: many philosophers argue that mind is supervenient on the body:

    It strikes me that understanding could be viewed as supervenient on knowledge. That would make an argument like “Knowledge organisers don’t plan for compassion etc” similar to the argument “you can’t reduce mind to the firing of neurons”, with both being equally fallacious.

  5. As an teacher educator I am very much intersested the subjects you highlight here. Your expression is very lucid and communicative.

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