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High School Connections Blog by Head of High School Steve Soden

Knowing vs. Understanding

This latest blog post is meant to share with the community one of the ongoing conversations that we have in the high school. A truth about good teaching is that it is a pursuit, not an ending. Each child is different, and so while we may grow increasingly comfortable with content, the job of teaching requires constant evaluation, imagination, and reflection. Kids, educational research, and global context all change; we must also evolve in order to stay relevant.

Estimates vary, but there is broad agreement that the majority of jobs that the next generation will hold do not yet exist. As a school, we take seriously our obligation to prepare our kids for what they will encounter in the future, so what we are left with is a reality where, in many senses, we don’t know what they will encounter. That, in turn, guides our approach to teaching. We pay attention to building perspective, encouraging interdisciplinary discovery, and emphasizing effective communication. We ask students to apply the skills and knowledge they learn to problems they have not previously seen. In essence, we draw a clear line between knowing and understanding.

I recently asked my ninth grade advisees to define in their own words what those two words mean. Their answers were illuminating, and they led to a great conversation about what our teachers try to accomplish at MCDS. Some sample answers:

“Knowing is memorizing the facts or theory, and understanding is being able to implement them.”

“Knowing is being acquainted with a concept on a superficial level, and understanding is being so thoroughly familiar with a concept that you are able to apply it to other concepts.”

“To know something is to memorize, and to understand something is to be able to apply or teach it.”

“Knowing is to be able to recite from memory, and understanding is to be able to apply it to a situation.”

As you can see, even in ninth grade, our students are able to identify that true understanding is significantly more complex and, ultimately, more important than simply knowing. The reality, therefore, is that true understanding requires an intentional approach. This is what our teachers strive to find, and why the assessments students complete are structured the way they are. We don’t want them just to remember; we want them to understand.

Sounds great, right? Well, there’s a catch: this type of learning is uncomfortable. There is something innately reassuring about simply knowing. This is why we do things like create flashcards. You either know what is on the other side of the flashcard or you don’t, and so your ability level is easily measurable. This sort of memory does not require any sort of nuanced approach. You either remember or you don’t. While I would argue that there is a place for this sort of work in certain circumstances, it cannot be the end goal.

Given the global context I mentioned at the beginning, we want to focus on the skills kids will need in the future, not just the facts we want them to memorize. Since we have identified that we are seeking true understanding, the challenge is getting past the things we as adults are comfortable with and getting to the point where we are focusing on what kids will need to be able to do with what they remember. An example: if you ask kids to tell you how many phone numbers they can remember off the top of their heads, they will probably be able to tell you three or four at most. Now, ask the same question of your parents. My guess is that they will know a lot more. The reason is not that children these days have worse memories; it is that our kids don’t need to remember phone numbers. They have their phones, so they have learned from a young age that it is not a useful skill.

You can apply this same concept to learning. The subject where I see kids come up against this the most is science. There is something very comfortable about remembering an answer or applying an algorithm, and so for years I have talked with students, especially ninth and tenth grade science students, about embracing ambiguity and focusing on process. The inherent truth in this is that science is, at its heart, about the application of concepts. It is not about knowing; it is about understanding. If we want our kids to think like scientists, we need them not just to know, but to understand. Again, however, this is uncomfortable.

I talk frequently about the why of an MCDS high school education, because it is the lifeblood of what we do. We are preparing kids for college and beyond, and so it is absolutely imperative that we help kids grapple with the uncomfortable learning processes that lead to true understanding. I suggest that, at home, parents might want to take cues from my advisees.  Ask your children to teach you about what they are learning. Don’t ask them about what they remember; ask them how they will apply it. Even better, ask them how they could apply it. As our ninth graders have already identified, that is how you will know where the learning happens, and the discussion will shed some light on the skills our kids are sure to use in the future.

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