Understanding Understanding (3)

The third chapter of Understanding by Design is one of the most provocative as it focuses on the very definition and range of meanings of the word “understanding”. It is a rather nebulous term and many educators use it to convey different ways of “understanding”. So what does  mean? Does it mean to internalize knowledge? To grasp the core essence? To be able to make connections later on?

(Gardner, 1991) “The test of understanding involves neither repetition of information learned nor performance of practices mastered. Rather it involves the appropriate application of concepts and principles to questions/problems that are newly posed.

The book’s authors stress the importance of clarifying this term not for the sake of semantics but because conceptual clarity is important. What is interesting about “understanding” as they define it is that it is different from knowledge (regardless of how vast it is) AND performance.

* This might be confusing so one example is multiplication in Math. The student might have the knowledge (of numbers) and the skill (s/he can correctly multiply) but no understanding of the underlying principles of multiplication (repeated addition, commutative property etc).

Another point that the authors make is that understanding is not directly related to how articulated and rich a student response might be. A student with less developed communication skills can have deeper understanding of a problem. That rings true to me as a teacher of second-language learners who would often feel unable to explain their insight due to language barriers. On a different level, if we talk about adults, as noted in a previous post, “a skilled philosopher is not necessarily a good philosopher. A skilled philosopher, for instance, may be quite adept at the mechanics of philosophical argumentation without actually having anything philosophically interesting to say.”

Last, a very good clarification of “misunderstanding” is given at the end of the chapter and I will quote it in full:

Misunderstanding is NOT ignorance – it is the mapping of an idea onto a plausible but incorrect framework.”

*An example is the constant misunderstanding of season formation. Most people, including Harvard graduates, still think that hot days in summer and cold days in winter are due to the elliptical motion of the Earth around the Sun. Empirically, this is a very plausible explanation. However, it is the tilt of the Earth that actually causes variations in temperature.

NOTE: I talk about the fist two chapters here and here, and will continue to bring here the most thought-provoking ideas as I have/make time.

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