What is Understanding?

Rodin Thinker, Columbia University Campus
Rodin Thinker, Columbia University Campus

This question, what is understanding, should be at the center of our conversation about how to improve our schools.  As educators, we have a responsibility to know what the research tells us about how to achieve deep understanding of the ideas we expect students to learn.  Too much of what we teach and how we teach promotes a superficial understanding on a student’s part.  This is partly due to our practice of teaching too much content and not allowing sufficient time to assimilate the knowledge into long-term memory.  In addition, we do not allow students to rehearse, apply, or assimilate their knowledge in a variety of settings, some of which mirror the way the knowledge is used by others.

I have become familiar with a site devoted to collaboration between teachers and administrators for the improvement of teaching that I wanted to share. The site is Active Learning Practice for Schools. Here is a description from their website that describes their mission:

“ALPS, Active Learning Practice for Schools, is an electronic community dedicated to the improvement and advancement of educational instruction and practice. Our mission is to create an on-line collaborative environment between teachers and administrators from around the world with educational researchers, professors, and curriculum designers at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and Project Zero.”

I would recommend that you to look at the site and see if there are resources or ideas you can tap into.  I came across this site as I was researching the question: What is Understanding?  How can we (educators) do a better job of promoting “understanding” with our students?  So much of what we teach, because we focus almost exclusively on content, is lost in a student’s memory within a short period of time.  After studying for a unit test, a typical student will be lucky if he or she can remember 10% of what was memorized (learned) two weeks later.  (David Sousa, How the Brain Learns) Traditional schooling promotes remembering information for short periods of time. The way we teach, the way we schedule classes, and the way we assess learning does not promote deep understanding of ideas, unless of course a students takes special interest in the topic and pursues it outside of a traditional classroom.  So how can we leverage what we know about the brain, learning, and understanding to do a better job teaching our students so that they leave school with enduring or deeper understandings?

The ALPS site has a section devoted to this question with an article on knowledge, skill and understanding.

I found this exercise on their website particularly useful and revealing. Here are the three questions. If you complete the questions, it will give you the answers from readers and survey participants.

Question 1
What do you understand extremely well?  Reflect on this and come up with something. It might be something you teach, something you studied in school, or something non-academic that you do in your house, your work, or your play. Make it something that you intuitively understand very well.

Question 2
Now, how did you develop the understanding?  Reflect on how you came to the understanding you identified.

Question 3
How do you know you understand?  Think about what gives you confidence that you understand this very well.  Specifically, what evidence convinces you of this solid understanding?

I reflected on participants’ responses to the three questions and found that many of them were personal interests. The expertise was developed through extensive practice out of the love for the activity. The knowledge of their success comes from extensive feedback, mostly informal.

Now that you have finished this exercise write in your journal or keep track of your answers to the three questions. I have posed a fourth question:

Question 4
What was your experience with the knowledge you gained throughout your schooling?  Is the example of what you understand well an activity/idea from a traditional classroom experience?  Did you develop this high-level understanding as a result of studying for a “unit or high-stakes test?”  Are you convinced of this deep understanding because someone graded your performance?

In my early schooling, most of what I learned was a function of memorizing information. It was not until graduate school at the University of Wisconsin that I truly understood what I was learning. I was highly engaged in my work, teaching microbiology to medical students, and applying what I was learning in the laboratory. In other aspects of my life, most of what I have a deep understanding of comes from dedication, practice, and application.

From doing the ALPS exercise, I would conclude we have a deep understanding of things…
• we value.
• we enjoy working on.
• we practice for many hours.
• we get regular feedback on.
• we teach to others.

David Perkins has written extensively on learning and teaching. Some of his books are:

• Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching can Transform Education (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass) (2009)
• Smart Schools: From Training Memories to Educating Minds (The Free Press) (1992)
• A Practitioner’s Series on Teaching Thinking (Swartz, R., & Perkins, D. N., Eds. Pacific Grove, CA: Midwest Publishers.) (1989)
• Art, Mind, and Education (Gardner, H., & Perkins, D. N., Eds. Urbana-Champaign and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.) (1989)

He wrote an article for the American Educator in 1993 entitled, Teaching for Understanding. In the article he explains what understanding means.

“In brief, understanding a topic of study is a matter of being able to perform in a variety of thought-demanding ways with the topic, for instance to: explain, muster evidence, find examples, generalize, apply concepts, analogize, represent in a new way, and so on. Suppose a student “knows” Newtonian physics: The student can write down equations and apply them to three or four routine types of textbook problems. In itself, this is not convincing evidence that the student really understands the theory. The student might simply be parroting the test and following memorized routines for stock problems. But suppose the student can make appropriate predictions about a snowball fight in space. This goes beyond just knowing. Moreover, suppose the student can find new examples of Newton’s theory at work in everyday experience (Why do football linemen need to be so big? So they will have high inertia.) and make other extrapolations. The more thought-demanding performances the student can display, the more confident we would be that the student understands.”

When asked in an interview what is worth knowing and what are the goals of education, Perkins comments:

“The goals of education are to teach for understanding; to help students learn to use knowledge to solve unexpected problems rather than simply recite back facts; and to develop a culture of thinking in the classroom so that students think critically and creatively thereby gaining intellectual empowerment. The primary skill worth learning is deep thinking which involves the flexible and active use of knowledge .”

Underlying Perkins educational theory is that learning is a consequence of thinking, deep thinking. Students learn what they have a reasonable opportunity and motivation to learn. Knowledge and skills are acquired through learning content, reflective and abundant practice with the content, and informative assessment about acquiring and applying the content. The assessment must include authentic assessment, not merely multiple choice questions on typical high-stakes tests. Authentic assessment asks students to pull together concepts learned in the subject matter and apply them in real-life situations. As compared to traditional assessments, they tend to be open-ended rather than one right answer questions, more intricate projects that take into account students’ different learning styles, and more informative when trying to assess a deeper understanding of the ideas.

This quote from Perkins work will give you a good sense of what it means to teach for understanding.

“Teaching for transfer using the methods of bridging and hugging is another essential teaching method suggested by Perkins. In bridging, teachers help students connect and apply the knowledge and skills learned in one context to other situations, perhaps another subject (across subject-matter learning) or with elements outside of the classroom (real life situations). In hugging, instruction is kept close to the target or desired performance. Problem-based learning is identified as a special type of hugging in which knowledge is not presented in advance but is looked up or researched by the learner in order to solve the problem . Knowledge acquired by this method is thought to be more flexible and better organized in the student s mind and more likely to generate application of the knowledge in future situations.”

Other educators that have made significant contributions to the question, what is understanding, are Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. In their book, Understanding By Design, they explore the question in chapter 2 and then go further to address how teachers can develop lessons to achieve understanding. On page 38, Figure 2.1, they compare and contrast knowledge versus understanding (2).

Knowledge Understanding
  • The facts
  • The meaning of the facts
  • A body of coherent facts
  • The theory that provides coherence and meaning to those facts
  • Verifiable claims
  • Fallible, in-process theories
  • Right or Wrong
  • A matter of degree or sophistication
  • I know something to be true
  • I understand why it is, what makes it knowledge
  • I respond on cue with what I know
  • I judge when to and when not to use what I know


In the case of the periodic table in chemistry, knowledge would be the information about elements, such as their atomic number, atomic mass, common isotopes, ionization energy or charge of ions.  The concrete information that is the underpining of the table.  Understanding would be more about the relationships of ionization energy to atomic number.  What are the patterns that emerge and why is the periodic table set up in a given manner?  Comprehening the meaning of the patterns and relationships requires more abstract thinking or a deeper understanding. 

How can we transform traditional schooling to promote the type of deep understanding promoted by David Perkins, Project Zero, Wiggins and McTighe, and other educators or institutions devoted to addressing this important question? The answers do not lie in NCLB, Race to the Top, Annual Yearly Progress, organizations for school accreditation, or most other bureaucratic programs. We, the educators, must look inside, as well as outside for answers to this question. We should study the research to inform our practice and we should begin to produce action research projects that try to answer the question, what does deep understanding look like in a classroom.

1. Teaching for Understanding, by David Perkins, American Educator: The Professional Journal of the American Federation of Teachers; v17 n3, pp. 8,28-35, Fall 1993

2. Understanding by Design, by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, ASCD, 2005.