Reminder to self: Understanding is not learning.

I’ve realised that recently I haven’t been practising what I preach, I’ve rather let the ‘traditional teaching’ side down. What have I been doing you might wonder, role play instead of essays? Have I stuck Bloom’s taxonomy on my wall?
I fear I have made the same mistake as as the most unreflective follower of Bloom’s.

I’ll admit it, I’ve talked too much! In teaching my yr13 political ideologies students I have over-prioritised ‘understanding’ and therefore spent too much class time in discussion. Admittedly we’ve had a lovely time and I’ve taken the classes to places they could never have reached alone. There has been a wonderful dialogue as the class ask questions and I use those opportunities to extend their thinking and make connections. I’ve loved hearing them ask such intelligent questions and explain back to me complex ideas. A few months back I felt quite smug. My class is far from the most able I have taught and they had shown the superb ‘understanding’ of the issues.

I’ve realised something rather fascinating that runs quite contrary to progressive dogma. There is nothing like great teacher talk to develop student understanding with an amenable class. I’m not sure an open dialogue between the expert and the learner can be beaten as a way of opening up unfamiliar ideas to students.

While I have been feasting my class on rich ideas my colleague, who teaches them the other side of the course, has been ‘beasting them’ (to use the students description of it.) He gives the class lots of independent work – by which I mean essays – huge piles of essays. He often provides them with scaffolding for their written work and sends them off.

The Mock exams suggest that while I got the class to ‘perform’ in lessons, my colleague secured more ‘learning’, long term. I hadn’t done enough to consolidate all they wonderful understanding developed in class.

I feel a bit silly and even embarrassed. After all I KNOW the importance of lots of practice for recall and have frequently criticised the progressive over-emphasis on understanding because it is prioritised over tasks to ensure recall and fluency. I’m the first to complain that my six year old has spent his numeracy time on one word problem and not done enough repetition to become fluent and automatic in procedures. However, I was just as seduced by exciting high level ‘understanding’ as a rookie trainee who has just been told Blooms is the paradigm through which all planning should come.

Fortunately the revision season is looming and my class will be getting LOTS of practice getting ideas onto paper. I may yet be able to capitalise on  the investment in understanding I made over the year.

However, I am amused by a realisation that turns progressive dogma on its head:

1. For understanding nothing beats teacher talk.

2. For fluency and recall independent tasks are great.



7 thoughts on “Reminder to self: Understanding is not learning.

  1. Fascinating post! I’m not sure whether exploring ideas and facilitating understanding through teacher-led discussion is the same as teacher-talk, though, which I see as lecturing – a method that also has its place, of course.

    Progressivists – wrongly in my view – confuse the two and I can’t help thinking that you’re falling into their linguistic trap. Likewise, how can class discussion that encourages the formulation of ideas manifested in verbal responses not be independent learning? Of course it is. And so is the absorption of knowledge through teacher expertise.

    My advice would be to set homework based upon the learning of facts, and to supplement this knowledge acquisition by teacher-led discussion and, of course, attempting practice questions, as you are. There’s no better way to learn!

    1. My play with the terms ‘understanding’ and ‘independence’ was a bit tongue in cheek really. I think it just amused me to suggest ‘understanding’ comes from teacher talk, given the silly trend against teacher talk in education currently.
      We do lots of tests, I’m very in favour but on this occasion I don’t think I got the balance quite right.

  2. This is an excellent boundary line to focus on Heather – thank you very much. Thank you also for the ‘research data’ you and your colleague have generated to help bring the point home!

  3. It is one of the things that has always befuddled me about Bloom that “understanding” comes only at level two in the hierarchy. Isn’t it all about understanding? When you look closely, Bloom’s use of the term seems to refer to the manipulation of ideas (relating, classifying, sorting) without applying them contextually. As you say, this is what you generally do in discussion and what you might also do, more simplistically, say with a card sorting exercise.

    In my personal experience, I am not sure I have really understood something until I have applied it contextually and, depending on the subject, used it to create something (top of the Bloom taxonomy and what your beastly colleague is surely addressing with all those essays?)

    Maybe the issue is more about seeing what goes on in class as preparatory to a demand for individual performance, rather than being to do with what Bloom level you are operating at? I am concerned that the traditionalist position should not be seen as always retreating to knowledge tests, which are surely only the starting point?

    Thanks for the post. Though not in the classroom any more, I have certainly known the lure of a bright, engaging set, which then disappoints when there is real work to be done.

    1. I was perhaps being a tad harsh on myself in the blog. The class do essays every week but I didn’t ‘beast’ them like my demanding colleague! I just think I got the balance wrong because of the ‘lure’ of fun discussion.
      I think I took as read in my post that ‘understanding’ was involved in all the higher levels of Blooms. I certainly felt that during lessons I made my class manipulate ideas and apply them. I certainly DO see what is going on in class as preparatory to the individual performance stage. That is why I find teachers complaining about homework being pointless so odd. That is when students get the chance to apply independently what they have learnt in class.
      Perhaps I was unwise to refer to Blooms in my post at all, it was purely as a device to laugh at myself. I don’t think I have ever, in the whole course of my 20+ year career, given Blooms a thought when planning lessons. In as far as it is useful it seemed obvious.

  4. I’m still a student teacher in training, but I can see myself easily falling into this trap of wanting to encourage children to develop their verbal-mental understanding at the expense of putting this down on paper.

    Guess what I’m really confused about now is how learning is defined by most teachers. I would have originally believed that it is long term understanding of information, but I suppose it also makes sense that your colleague was also helping children learn the ability to apply their understanding to written paper. I’m just wondering whether this could be considered as two complete separate skills, and therefore it seems a little unfair on yourself to say that the children aren’t learning.

    If you got the children to look at the information again a year on from now, 2 years or even more… what might the difference between classes look like?

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