Episode 31 Five ways to help turn knowledge into understanding

In this Episode, Dan explains the difference between knowledge and understanding. He also provides 5 ways to turn knowledge into understanding to help create lifelong learners.

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Show notes

Hi and welcome to the Effective Teaching podcast from TeachersPD. I’m Dan Jackson and today I am going to compare teaching for understanding with teaching for knowledge and explain why understanding is so important when we are training our students to become lifelong learners.

Firstly, let’s differentiate between knowledge and understanding. I think as teachers we all know that there is a difference between the two, but we often don’t think about it in terms of how it affects or should affect what we do in our lessons.

Knowledge is basically the content. It is what the teacher presents, or what the student could read or watch in a video. Knowledge is essentially the students ability to replicate what the teacher has taught them. It is a regurgitation of ideas and can include applying this knowledge in the same context in which it was taught. For example, if I teach my class how to add 3 and 3 to get 6 the student can then do this sum. Or, if I teach my students how the biceps is the agonist in a bicep curl and the triceps is the antagonist, they can then repeat this back to me.

This is different to understanding. Understanding is when the person can take their knowledge, identify the essentials, the concepts or the processes and transfer these into other settings or contexts. If we revisit our examples then…

If we are teaching addition, the student can not only add 3 and 3 to get 6, they can also add 2 and 4 to get 6 or 9 and 9 to get 18. If they have a better understanding they can even add 23 and 54 to get 76 or add 1,230, 345 and 10 to get 1,585. If we revisit the agonist antagonist muscle relationship, a student who has understanding can then tell me why the pectoralis major, and anterior deltoids are the agonists during a push up and pair them with the posterior deltoids, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, trapezius and teres major and minor which all relax and, therefore, function as the antagonist muscles for the same contraction. 

Understanding is not just the same application, but a different application. When I use this definition I can also speak of skills as being a form of knowledge. If I teach you how to build by building a birdhouse and you then build a birdhouse to show your skills, you are simply replicating what you were taught. However, if you demonstrate your skills by building a cubby house, or cabinet, you have understanding because you are transferring the skill into a new context or to a new problem or project.

So, if we think of knowledge as replication of what is taught and understanding as transfering what is taught by applying it to a new context it becomes obvious which one is the desired result when trying to create lifelong learners… Understanding in case you weren’t sure.

Now if understanding is our goal, there are a few ways we can help our students to get there:

  1. DON”T USE EXAMS as the main form of assessment! Exams may have a place in education and in schools, but they lend themselves towards assessment of knowledge over understanding. This is not to say that they cannot assess understanding, there are just much better ways of doing this. Often exams are limited in the types of questions they can ask and students sitting them can regurgitate what they have learnt without the need to apply it to a new context. This is a broad statement about exams, which can differ and can assess understanding, but often they do not. Where exams or tests can be useful is in identifying that students have the knowledge and are thus ready to begin to try and understand. That is, the students are ready to apply the knowledge to new contexts and problems. So you could use them well as a pivot assessment (from Dylan William) where in the middle of a lesson you may quickly check that students know what you have just taught and whether they are ready for the next stage.
  2. USE MULTIPLE EXAMPLES, contexts, problems etc in your teaching. Tell various stories where what you are teaching can be applied to help your students see the central concepts that are key in each context. For example, if I am teaching my students about anxiety in sport and how athletes manage this anxiety, I will not only provide various different sports scenarios, but will also examine scenarios from real life where people are anxious and the same or similar strategies can be used to manage its effects on performance. Such examples could include high pressure exams, such as our HSC in NSW or other major performances such as that required to achieve your AMusA Diploma in Piano. By providing multiple examples I am already beginning to help my students to learn to transfer their knowledge across contexts to demonstrate understanding rather than knowledge.
  3. FOCUS ON THE ESSENTIALS. When teaching a skill or idea, it is important to focus on the essentials and not so much on the variables. Help students to grasp those core concepts or aspects that transfer and then add the variables to the contexts where they are needed for correct performance or application. For example, when learning how to read it is first important for students to learn phonetics and be able to differentiate between sounds in the language. The code, or the alphabet is then introduced later as this is something that varies. Even when this is introduced, the less variable letters and sounds are done first to help cement the core aspects of reading, before all the variables are added. So, students may learn “S”, “M” and “A” first. But they will first learn the most common sound that “a” makes and then variables will grow from there since it can make the sounds “e” as in “sam” “a” in “that” and “u” as in  “a bag” and even bag is slightly different. Helping students to get the basics that stay the same then helps them to transfer the knowledge to the new context.
  4. PROVIDE OPPORTUNITIES FOR TRANSFER. Once your students have the knowledge, you need to offer them ample opportunities to transfer this knowledge, make mistakes, get feedback and adjust in order to help them transfer the knowledge into understanding. Here you might take the scientific method of a hypothesis, a method to test it, collecting results, analysing and interpreting results and making conclusions as the central and core concept and then run multiple experiments with students applying this method to various contexts so that they can see how it adapts to various contexts. That is, they need to see how the experiments and methods can change depending on what chemicals and compounds are being dealt with, or the type of experiment. Providing these opportunities allows students to “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” and learn.
  5. The final way to help students develop an understanding that I want to mention is to USE A CRITICAL INQUIRY APPROACH to learning. Such an approach allows students to research and find their own solutions to problems. It includes guidance from the teacher, feedback and development. It could look like a research project or a sort of project based learning approach. Anything that allows and challenges students to begin from questions and to ask more questions to solve what Wiggins and McTighe call “essential questions” and become “driving questions” in PBL. By beginning with questions, students learn not by rote, but by inquiry, which helps build and create understanding because application, testing, problem solving and critical thinking are all purposefully built into the approach.

If you want to start somewhere, start with one of these to help your students develop an understanding, rather than simply repeat knowledge. 

  • Remove the focus on tests
  • Provide multiple examples
  • Focus on the essentials of the topic
  • Provide opportunities for transfer
  • Present topics using questions and promote a critical inquiry approach to learning.

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