Knowing and Understanding

In a comment on this Google+ thread about yesterday’s post, Alison asked an important question about the distinction I’d made between knowing and understanding.  And then she added this:

I’m sure my math teachers “knew” what they were teaching, in that they could demonstrate how to solve an equation. However, I’ve been told that few math teachers really understand the subject, and that if they did, they’d be able to teach alternative strategies to students who don’t do well with the “traditional” approach.

I don’t want to single out math teachers, or teachers of any other subject for that matter.  Over the years, I’ve known – and valued as colleagues and friends – teachers of all different subjects who knew but didn’t understand the subjects they taught, as well as those who knew and understood.  I’ve even known a few who realized they needed a deeper understanding, and who sought it out and became much better, much different teachers.  And in my own teaching, I’ve noticed a growth of understanding – of the structure of the Latin language, of the Roman literature we read, of the history and culture of the people we study – over the years.  But unlike Ms. X and Mr. Y, who need to be reminded to “study up on your content before you teach it” by Powers That Be from time to time, I think I always knew and understood that knowledge and understanding were both important.

But that’s not the default assumption of factory-model schools.  George put it this way in a comment on the same thread:

Transmission. Another term, oft-used in my system, not always top-down, either, is: content delivery. The UPS driver really doesn’t have to know what’s in the packages.

And Laura noted

That business of “filter and dispense” (or, in the case of robograders, “filter and evaluate”) is a huge problem, completely contrary to the making of meaning as you point out, and it is very much the assumption that underlies the implicit or explicit assumption that we can AUTOMATE teaching.

Due to the diagnostic testing, the Latin Family was relocated to the school Media Center yesterday morning, and some of our members had to miss class for the testing.  By the afternoon, we were back in our normal location, but over half of the upper-level students were exhausted from the lengthy testing they’d just completed.  What to do, what to do on the second day of new classes?  Ms. X and Mr. Y might have moaned and complained or done business as usual.  But we made meaning together, as Laura put it.  The Latin I classes built “The World’s Largest Timeline,” working in groups of two or three to focus on eras of history they’re particularly interested in.  We shared out the results, then constructed K-W-L charts  of things other than historical dates that we know, think we know, and wonder about Latin and the Romans … and I was astounded by the depth of both knowledge and understanding that this group of students already possesses.  The intermediate and advanced groups finished the two phases of our “Cumulative Vocabulary Review Thing” and, as we had time, started looking at samples of performance at various proficiency levels on the ACTFL website.  We’ll be returning to those – we were all tired by then, and the task wasn’t quite as well-defined as it needed to be on such a day – and we’ll also be thinking about our own current levels of proficiency and what it will feel like as we move up.  And everyone will be reading and understanding some new Latin today – the first time for the new Latin I group, who’ve just seen and used isolated words thus far.

When you’re building and sustaining a joyful learning community, it’s important to make meaning together, and it’s important to aim for understanding as well as knowledge.  Factory-schooling isn’t opposed to understanding, exactly; it’s just that there’s so much to cover (from Ms. X and Mr. Y’s point of view, anyway), and you can do OK on the test if you know the material.  I have a suspicion that, if Ms. X and Mr. Y ever experienced students who understood deeply, it would change everything for them in time … but how exactly would that happen, and how would we help them with the initial shock as their paradigms shifted?  One Ms. X, not so long ago, confronted with students who genuinely did have knowledge, and some understanding of That Week’s Concept, was annoyed.  She told them that it was on the syllabus, and she was going to teach them again, and they had better be quiet and re-learn it!  Even That Ms. X has gained some understanding of the value of extra time in the years that followed … but what would she, and Many A Ms. X and Mr. Y, do with students who truly sought deep understanding?  Or who already demonstrated it?

I wonder where these questions will lead us, and I wonder what other new discoveries and questions await us in the days to come!

Published in: on January 24, 2014 at 11:44 am  Leave a Comment  

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