Can one know before one understands?

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.

3 Comments on Can one know before one understands?

  1. Marc Lapointe // 14 June 2018 at 17:59 // Reply

    I’m following your recent posts with great interest from New York City, so I’ll offer this:
    Let’s say we take “why it is important in American culture,” and “why it is important in British culture” as the means through which we will assess whether students ‘know’ the Magna Carta (for the sake of the argument, my students here in the states and yours in the UK respectively). By doing this, I propose using your remaining listed bullet points as component parts of a plan for instruction and assessment to structure students’ opportunities to learn the Magna Carta with the goal of being able to argue for its importance in American or British culture.

    For the purposes of this response, I won’t fully develop this plan in writing (though the specifics and nuances do absolutely matter). But the question of which of the bullet points matter most to student learning and in what sequence is interesting if we take the final assessment (importance to American culture/importance to British culture) as the starting point. For example, do the ‘when’ and ‘who’ questions matter less if my purpose is to organize learning for students that prioritizes their understanding of the Magna Carta’s impact on American culture? This is not to go as far as to leave the historical context that includes those details out of the instruction–they are obviously important–but to what extent will I assess student knowledge (‘knowing’) of those details? To assess for student knowledge of the ‘when’ and ‘who’ I would likely assess for student understanding of the relationship/standing of the parties involved as they relate to a broader understanding of feudalism–in other words, a working ‘knowledge’ that contributes to a more important ‘understanding’ (please excuse the quotation marks and imprecision of the vocabulary–I’m thinking through the important points that you raise without declaring an affinity for either ‘knowing’ or understanding’).

    The remaining bullet points present different assessment challenges, and with an eye for the calendar and working under the pressure of limited instructional time and several more centuries to teach, I would aim to combine the questions with the intention of clarifying how and what I will assess student learning. Why was the Magna Carta first issued, and what did it stipulate? What were the intentions (the stipulations), and what other immediate consequences were experienced by the historical actors?

    Lastly (and thank you if you are still reading), what is the enduring significance of the Magna Carta on American culture? I may specify American ‘political’ or ‘legal’ culture to frame the realm of the assessment, not to limit student exploration of other possible significance, but importantly to define the terms of the assessment. Indeed, I would hope that in asking a very specific question in this final assessment, that students would challenge the specificity of the terms and venture to argue for its significance as they see it manifest in other aspects of American culture (for example, how conflicting parties negotiate or how power shapes conflict).

    All this being said, I am interested in if/how this (hasty) construction would differ if the learning is being designed in the UK for the purposes of assessing student understanding of the importance of the Magna Carta on British culture.

    Please keep writing this blog–I really appreciate the rigor of the discourse on your blog (I discovered it only this year) and the thoughtful responses that you solicit from your readers.

    Marc NYC

    • Thanks for this response – I think I agree with the point being made here. My argument is that it is always too simplistic to say that one ‘knows’ or ‘does not know’ about anything, as one can know something in a variety different levels of sophistication – which is what I am taking your response above to mean!

  2. jerrymaker // 9 August 2018 at 07:16 // Reply

    Can I add my tuppence ha’porth worth. There is an emotional element to learning and understanding. When the teacher is engaging in a dialogue with students and helping them on the next learning rung of what ever subject they are studying there is an emotional high of coming together and learning something.
    If you want an example I recently set my keen 8 year old mathematicians some Algebra. There was a buzz from both me and them as we set forth into (what was for them) terra incognito.

    As for which comes first; difficult one. As a musician I happily played Handel violin sonatas without any knowledge of the cultural setting of 18th century baroque; my interpretaion was defintely romantic. I now (regrettably) have that knowledge and so have to accept the thin sound of the baroque violin.

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