Understanding 'understanding'

WOW Mar 11, 2019

Anyone who teaches may often feel discrepancy when aiming at a certain level of complexity, while some of the learners “still do not understand”. They may attain a lower level of understanding, but this is not enough, as this kind of knowledge will not be useful enough and won't last long.

What can be done when learners do not understand? It may be helpful to approach the situation by breaking the process of understanding to its components and to considering whether the problem lays in any of them. What is described here is naturally a theoretical, domain-general approach, which every teacher may compare against a specific teaching materials, approaches ,and even specific learning processes of individual students . Some of the components described here are "straight forward" and unsurprisingly in line with most existing lesson and topic plans. However, some of the processes are more subtle than others and are more often taken for granted, it might be fruitful to explicitly consider them in order to locate and target gaps in students' learning.

The route to understanding includes these three basic components: new knowledge, prior knowledge and making meaningful connections. Below are the key points to consider about each of them, with some examples.

Considering new knowledge, prior knowledge and meaningful connections:

The new concept is explicit, distinct, and clear:

It is helpful to present the new concept before learning - to establish familiarity, if possible even more than once. For example:

  • As a preview for the lesson - presenting just the concepts without explanations.
  • No stakes questionnaire or quiz about upcoming new concepts (may help frame the learning, familiarize learners with the new terms).
  • A light homework assignments, targeted at establishing familiarity, not deep understanding.

Present the new concept explicitly, clearly and distinctly to ensure processing

  • Explain the concept explicitly and directly, repeat several times.
  • Give a straightforward explanation, rather than let students explore and discover. Making meaning by itself may be a demanding mental task.
  • Present a minimal possible number of new concepts in one session, if there is more than one , they should be clearly distinct (temporally and conceptually).

Relevant prior knowledge is available and active:

If prior knowledge is not available there is no other way but to teach it.

  • Time is better spent at teaching the basics then trying to teach the new without it (we cannot build the top of the pyramid without the basis)

The relevant prior information should be ACTIVE at the time of learning

  • Teacher reviewing relevant material is often creating an illusion of active prior knowledge., the same is true when one or two students volunteer to review. It is tempting to assume that students intuitively relate to their prior knowledge, but it is better not to, especially when they are novices.
  • Short questionnaire on the required knowledge would serve as effective retrieval practice, and as preparation for the new learning,

Creating explicit and meaningful connections between prior knowledge and new concept:

Connections are understood on the basis of already familiar connections: use familiar and well-grounded concrete examples that represent well the type of connection we are teaching. Some examples:

  • The pyramids illustration above is a concrete example for the relations between the abstract concepts 'knowledge' and 'understanding'.
  • Real objects (e.g. fingers, blocks) are examples for number concepts.
  • Matrices of real objects are examples for the multiplication concept.
  • Visual or physical models help explain scientific concepts like DNA, chemical bonds, forces, currents etc..

The nature of the connections in the example is discussed explicitly and distinctly to ensure making the appropriate connection to the concept and to prevent mis-attribution of other characteristics of the model. Demonstration may be attention-grabbing by nature, but it is important to ensure explicit focus on the nature of connection, on making the intended meaning (can be achieved by asking question after the demonstration).

About our guest author -

Efrat Furst

Teaching educators and learners about the science of learning and application in classrooms. Post-doc Fellow at the Learning Incubator,  SEAS, Harvard University.

What I’m most curious about is human learning. How does it take place in the brain and how does it take place in the classroom? From my point of view, shaped by my background in both cognitive neuroscience and teaching, they are equally interesting and greatly interrelated. These questions guide my everyday work in communicating (neuro)science and education. Educators and researchers often have similar questions about learning, but different ways to approach them, with different goals, ranging from pure theory to pure practice. I find it fascinating and valuable to look at these goals through both lenses, striving to understand both the ‘Why’ and the ‘How’, shaping both teaching practices and research.

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