WHAT IT MEANS TO
(a short and sweet explanation) - Part 1
Dr. Bob Kizlik
January 1, 2014
We are constantly bombarded with others wanting us to "understand" one thing
or another, but that sort of begs the question, doesn't it? We are still left
with the fundamental question, "what does it mean to understand something?"
Teachers almost universally seek to have their students
learn and understand the subject matter they are teaching.
There is nothing wrong with this intent, but again, it begs
Throughout the Internet, on most sites dealing with education, as well as on
the ADPRIMA site, the word “understand” is used with near reckless abandon. Read
almost any set of educational goals, and you are sure to find this word. There
is no dearth of use of this term; it is ubiquitous. But popularity of the word belies a
fundamental problem, and that problem is at the core of efforts to develop
curricula and concomitant vocabulary that actually provide a means to reach a
set of agreed-upon goals. Simply put, we use the word “understand” in many
instances without any clear idea of what it means to understand something.
Curriculum guides, course syllabi and many other education references and
documents use understand in various, often confusing and conflicting ways.
In my own work, I strive to clarify my instructional and curricular
intentions from the first day. I have no problem using the word understand in my
courses, even when the subject matter is very specific. Let me explain.
As one who teaches young men and women who seek to become teachers, I use
understand one way or another in every class I teach. I even require that my
students to begin their lesson plans with the phrase “I want my students to
At the core of this approach are some assumptions about what words and ideas
mean in the first place. In every class I teach, whether it is undergraduate,
graduate, or distance learning, there is always a component that deals with what
it means to understand or "know about" something, and why teachers must be able
to articulate why specificity is important in describing any learning goal.
Reasons are important! As part of the class presentation on how to write
behavioral objectives or learning objectives that actually communicate learning
outcomes in a clear and unambiguous way, I ask each student to complete these
1. "I know about or understand"_______________________
2. "I know how to"_________________________________
The students are told that these understanding and skills can be about
anything, and not necessarily social studies, which is what I teach. Usually,
students are comfortable expressing what they understand and know how to do when
the context for doing so is not threatening. When they have finished writing the
completions to the sentences, there is period when I ask each student to tell
the class what it is they understand and know how to do. During the process, I
question them about how they came to understand whatever they wrote and how they
learned the skill they indicated. It is an interesting exercise.
Following that, I give an assignment based on our discussion. The assignment
is to write a description of what a person would have to DO in order for the
student to make an inference that the person actually understood what the
student said he or she understood. It makes sense. Another way of saying this is
suppose someone came up to you and said, "I understand what you said you
understand..." What would this person have to DO to convince you?
This exercise is a beginning to the process of learning to write objectives
that actually communicate. Since about 95% of social studies is about
understanding content and concepts, it is reasonable to begin with learning how
to write objectives that deal with understanding. What better content to begin
with than what a student says he or she understands?
The acid test for understanding is rather simple; if a person says he or she
understands something, then the person should be able to explain to others what
it is that is understood. It come down to the premise that if you can't explain
what you know, then chances are you don't know it. But there are functions of
knowledge that go beyond explanation. In addition, as has been stated many times
on the ADPRIMA site, "anything not understood in more than one way is not
understood at all." Read the next page and you will see what I mean.
Click here for part 2.