What on EARTH is understanding?


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.


What on EARTH are we teaching?

When it comes to the concepts that I have been introduced to in the past few semesters of Education, I can’t help but evaluate how my past educators would stack up against the criteria we face today. There are very obvious traits that are considered ineffective teaching, such as 90 minutes of straight lecture. I can definitely think of teachers that have done this, and seen how the students suffered because of it. 

Some of the other methods are less obvious in my mind, yet are still remarkable in their ineffectiveness. My best example would be my 9th grade Earth Science teacher. He was a nice guy; approachable and well spoken. However, that class did not leave me with any sort of lasting impression, despite the content being my major now. My most significant memories of that class include hanging out with my friend and my boyfriend in the back of the room. I also distinctly remember learning the definition of viscosity INCORRECTLY. Such a simple concept, and yet I still get mixed up in whether viscous material is resistant or not, all because of learning it incorrectly over six years ago!

Looking back I can see that this teacher must have been more focused on coverage rather than understanding. The question for this week is “what do we teach?” but I think that question is more or less irrelevant without also asking “what are they learning?” An educator can teach as much as they want, but if their students are not grasping the concepts, all of that time has been wasted. 

teach the way they learn

For me this is an important idea because understanding earth science has so many real world implications. To understand atmospheric composition, climate, and historical warming and cooling patterns is to understand climate change and how it affects us. To understand resource scarcity in materials, food, and water is to understand an issue that seriously plagues parts of the world and even in the United States. In my opinion, to truly influence understanding in what our Earth is facing is one in the same as inspiring environmental stewardship. 

“Smart in the Middle Grades” chapter three states, “Teachers who develop curriculum that helps young adolescents understand themselves and the world around them in ways that are mentally energizing do more than “teach well”; they are catalysts for student investment in a fulfilling future.” This resonated with me because if my teacher had been more energizing with the topic I might have had an easier time figuring out my career path. Additionally, it is important to me to energize students not only to empower their future, but also the future of generations that will face a very different relationship with the planet than we do.

All of this points to how important it is to keep vigilance on understanding in the class. I found an article from Smart Brief that discussed the difficulty of gauging understanding in classes that make large use of technology. Leveraging technology is being implemented to “allow teachers and students real time feedback to aid in the modification and personalization of instruction in the classroom.” I think utilizing digital checks of comprehension is an awesome way to make the best use of technology while maintaining a check system on the understanding within the classroom.