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WHAT IT MEANS TO UNDERSTAND SOMETHING

(a short and sweet explanation) - Part 1

Dr. Bob Kizlik

March 17, 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 the question.

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 understand…” 

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 two sentences:

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.

"Anything not understood in more than one way is not understood at all."

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Copyright 2014

Robert Kizlik & Associates

Boca Raton, Florida