What on EARTH is understanding?

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Teachers dedicate their time, energy, and lives to educating people, but what is the mark of success? Is it that their students get As? That their students “understand” the material? If students receive high grades is that an adequate measure of understanding? These are all questions that educators should consider when planning their presentations of information and evaluations of learning.

In Understanding by Design there is a lot of discussion on the relationship between “knowing” and “understanding.” Often they are used interchangeably but their implications are very different. Facts can be seen in isolation, while concepts and meaning are embedded with many things. As the article states, “to grasp the meaning of a thing, an event, or a situation is to see it in its relations to other things: to see how it operates or functions, what consequences follow from it, what causes it, what uses it can be put to.” One can know things but be far from understanding how they those interact with larger concepts and ideas.

Because of the important difference between knowing and understanding, it is vital for the teacher to format evaluations around whether or not students understand the content, rather than whether or not they know it. So often students these days will cram last minute for an exam and as soon as the test is over they will file dump all of the information. They knew it for the test, and as soon as the test was done the information was discarded. If the students understand the information, that cannot be discarded as easily as isolated facts and numbers. The Essential Questions chapter presents characteristics of questions that are adequate is evaluating understanding. Number 1 states that the question should be open ended and not require a single, final answer. I think this is important because it provides a forum for the student to put all of the knowledge pieces they have gained together and form a cohesive larger picture.

Phys.org has an article that explains that memorization actually hinders understanding in mathematics. They talk about how students will memorize their multiplication tables without developing a “number sense.” This makes them totally dependent on the memorized facts and “when students are stressed – such as when they are solving math questions under time pressure – the working memory becomes blocked and the students cannot as easily recall the math facts they had previously studied.” The article also states that “when we emphasize memorization and testing in the name of fluency we are harming children, we are risking the future of our ever-quantitative society and we are threatening the discipline of mathematics.”

This plays into the idea of proper understanding, because students knowing content does not guarantee them success in that area. It is important for them to grasp concepts and be able to apply them with greater implications. This brings me back to the Understanding by Design chapter where they discuss understanding as transferability. The chapter states that since teachers can only cover so much material within the class, it is important to teach them how to connect dots and make inferences for themselves, so that they can be in a constant state of learning for themselves.

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