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Knowledge and Understanding

I used to hate the history class while I was in junior high/high school. I did have interest in something historical. In fact, I still remember the sensation, sentiment, and sorrow that I felt when I first read the story of 47 Rohnin (Ako Rohshi). I could barely calm down the resentment and sadness that the whole story had brought to me for a long time. However, I didn’t find any significant meaning in what was taught in the history class. It was probably because what was going on in a classroom was only the transmission of facts. What’s on earth the point of remembering the year of 1192 as when the Kamakura Shogunate was founded? There were a whole bunch of years, events, names to remember, and not so much time left for us to contemplate why those events occurred, or what implications the events could’ve had on a later history. Last night at grad school, we discussed the difference between knowledge and understanding based on the designated textbook titled “Understanding by Design (G. Wiggins. & J. McTighe.)” What and how we learned in a history class was one of the topics for our discussions. “Knowledge” is likened to the historical facts that a history teacher or a history textbook tells us, and “Understanding” is likened to know the meaning of facts, to identify a pattern, theory, or implication across all the facts, and to apply them to other contexts. What made me so bored back then in the history class was that the most of the time was devoted just to the transmission of factual knowledge, I suppose. This issue is nothing specific to a history class, though. All the subjects, like mathematics, physics, science, and of course English need to be taken into consideration.

One might argue that unless students have certain amount of knowledge on the subject matter, no further learning will happen. That is absolutely true. Take one English class for instance. The words “big” and “large” and their differences are to be taught today. As you well know, these two words are the adjectives to describe considerable sizes, but when used with “mouth” as in “a big mouth” and “a large mouth”, they’ll start showing the difference. To be able to use “a big mouth” and “a large mouth” properly, the students need to know the words “big” and “large” semantically, syntactically, and phonetically to begin with. They also need to be aware that “big” as in “a big mouth” means being unjustified, pretentious, or excessive. That is still the level of “factual knowledge”, the collection of preexisting facts. But the ultimate goal of the students who just learned the words “big” and “large” along with their differences is to be able to “use” them properly in given contexts applying the theory that they’ve induced and learned. A teacher can prepare tasks in which students will consider given situations, determining whether they’re supposed to talk about the sizes of something or the credibility of something, and make appropriate word choices. It might be put that understanding is to be able to apply the knowledge and transfer it to other contexts, while transforming specific factual knowledge into general transferable rule or theory to be applied. One tricky part is, that things “we think” we know are not necessarily beyond (factual) knowledge. It’s often the case that we don’t understand the matter to the extent in which we can explain theory or logic behind it, or apply the knowledge to the situation or context properly.

Okay, “Knowledge and Understanding” are different, but how our level or degree of understanding can be assessed? In our discussions, one of the native English speaking peers said that TOEIC Part 5 type questions were nonsense. He argued that the words and phrase tested are decontextualized (I could defend that some of them, such as Part 6 ones, are a bit contextualized.), and it’s a multiple-choice question, so the TOEIC test measures only “Knowledge”, not “Understanding” of test-takers. Point taken. I personally think that the TOEIC test measure a portion of test-takers’ understanding by the questions requiring their inferences based on comprehension of what is stated, but I basically agree with my peer’s comment. Well, it’s like “pushing the right button when prompted”. I’ve observed that even 800ers or 900ers who do quite well on Part 5 and 6 questions cannot explain why they have to choose specific answers, and they cannot fill in the blanks of Part 5 and 6 type sentences without multiple word choices. That’s always sad to see that those high score holders cannot produce the language properly. So, not only English teachers, but also standardized test designers are responsible for how English learners’ understanding of the language can be (and should be) assessed.

Specifically speaking, you can access much of your understanding of English grammar and vocabulary by writing essay, journals, or short pieces in English. I daily do Quick Writing. The QW practice helps me see the lack of my understanding of vocabulary and its usage. Writing something in English will surprisingly reveal the lack of your knowledge and the inadequacy of your understanding on grammar and vocabulary. It’s totally a different business than “pushing the right button when prompted”. It may be ideal to have feedback on your writing from someone who has higher proficiency than yours, but you can review and reconsider what you wrote on your own and learn from it. Our discussion on “Knowing vs. Understanding” last night came to a conclusion that either of them is essential for learning, but their balance should be carefully considered depending of the nature of the subjects or goals of learning. But we also agreed that there remains a big issue that we’ll never be able to tell when and how knowledge in learners turns into their understanding because every student has their own pace and path to reach their understanding, which makes our course design and teaching rather complicated, actually. In fact, the professor repeatedly told us, “Learning is really a messy process. It never goes in a linear way. It always goes back and forth.” Well, then, there should never be an ultimate answer or panacea to help transform students’ knowledge into their understanding, and to such extent, learning a language involves a mysterious process.

"Understanding by Design (G. Wiggins. & J. McTighe.)"

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Aya

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