Consider the following:
“I know about Magna Carta”
What does this statement tell us about what you know? The answer here, I think, is that it does not tell us very much. That sentence could be uttered by someone who knows almost nothing about Magna Carta, and could be uttered by one of the world’s leading authorities on the texts. There are, after all, a vast array of things that one might know about Magna Carta. The things one might know include
- that it existed
- why it was first issued
- when it was first issued
- who was involved in issuing it
- what one of its stipulations was
- what all of its stipulations were
- why it was subsequently issued
- what led to it being issued
- what the impact of its issue was
- why it is important in American culture
- why it is important in British culture
- its legal status in the twenty-first century
and so on and so on. There is no threshold at which one can claim to ‘know’ about Magna Carta. Rather, we can go from knowing less about Magna Carta to knowing more about it, building a more sophisticated knowledge as we go along.
And exactly the same can be said of the word ‘understand’. At a very basic level, I can understand that Magna Carta existed, or, in a more sophisticated way, I can understand what led to it being issued, or I can understand its legal status in the twenty-first century. Again, there is no threshold here at which one can claim to ‘understand’ Magna Carta. Rather, we can go from understanding less about it to understanding more about it.
All of this provides just one example of why it makes little sense to try and tie words like ‘know’ and ‘understand’ to progression models in teaching. It does not make sense to say that one begins by knowing about something, and then moves on to understanding it. Even if we can make some distinctions between ‘knowing’ and ‘understanding’ (I suspect we can, but I should think it a rather complex array of nuances) then it would still make more sense to say that knowledge and understanding proceed hand in hand.
I do have sympathy for the point that is usually being made when one attempts to argue that children should not just know but should understand. Typically, this involves arguing that we do not want children to learn a limited number of facts about something, but rather than we want them to know about it in greater complexity. To continue with the Magna Carta example, I too would not be happy if a child knew the date of its first issue and absolutely nothing else about it. This would of course be a straw man, for I do not think anyone argues that the only thing one should ever know about something is its date. The important curricular question is just what should they know about it. Is it enough to know three or four of the bullet points I listed above? Would we be satisfied if someone knew about all of those bullet points? Is even that too limited? This is an important debate to be had, and there are no simple answers to it. Any attempt to answer “how much should one know about / understand Magna Carta?” will require it to be placed in the wider context of a child’s education.
This is why attempting to reduce this down to knowledge vs understanding is a distraction. Whichever verb you choose to use is, ultimately, not particularly significant. I would not really mind if we ditched the verb ‘to know’ completely and just replaced it with the word ‘to understand’. Our task as curriculum thinkers would not become any easier or more difficult. What does matter is the object that verb takes: it is what is known or understood over which we should fuss.