The cycle of understanding


What do you understand?

This is the question posed frequently by David Perkins, of Project Zero fame when developing thinking about “teaching for understanding”. I remember being fortunate enough to hear him speak in Glasgow many years ago, and he asked those of us in the audience, (all teachers), to discuss then write down what we thought we understood; boy were the answers interesting. There were some maths teachers who chose maths, english teachers who chose english, even a few primary teachers who chose childrens’ development as their well understood area, but these were minority answers. The majority of the room chose, such things as, cookery, football, guitar playing, gardening, crime fiction. What about yours truly, I chose cycling!

At that time, I was a very keen cyclist, and I even did some time-trialling and club riding. In tandem with this (pun intended), I devoured more than a reasonable share of available books and magazines on the subject. I also went on cycle-touring holidays with all of the learning around lightweight camping, load carrying, planning, famous touring authors etc. Perkins helped us all to unpick why we had made our choices, and in danger of misrepresenting the great man, I will summarise what I recall. If you understand something, you have developed a “scaffold” in your mind. It doesn’t mean that you know everything about the topic, far from it, it means that whatever new facts you acquire can be easily identified as belonging to a specific area of your mental framework, and placed there in your learning process. For example, someone may have asked me, “when did the last rider win the Tour de France on a steel framed bike”? I wouldn’t have known the answer, but I wouldn’t have been stressed by the question. I would have thought along a mental frame-line about “cycle racing”, another about , “cycle materials”, I would have further recalled a line of rough knowledge about the history of bikes. The point being that I don’t have anything like encyclopaedic knowledge on any of these subjects, but I know a comfortable set of basic ideas on each line of my mental scaffold. I recall that many second hand eighties-bikes were on the market when I was riding in the nineties, and they were known to be early aluminium frames. I also recall that Miguel Indurain (tour winner) rode steel bikes, and that Marco Pantani, a subsequent tour winner was riding more modern bikes which I guess were aluminium or carbon fibre. I therefore guess that it might have been around Indurain’s era, the 90’s. It wouldn’t win me mastermind, but it’s typical of how a person with a basic understanding actually begins to enjoy even what he or she doesn’t actually know. The actual answer was Indurain 1994, interesting eh!

A gardening enthusiast, will do the same. On visiting a strange country, she may be asked for advice on some plants for a developing rockery in a garden. This enthusiast may have no knowledge of Southern Spanish rockeries, but she will explore her mental frame-lines too. She may think about dry/arid plants that they have read about, succulents and cacti, hibiscus, lavender etc. She may also think of wooded plants like yukka, cycas etc. The interesting thing is that she may have very little experience of these plants, especially she lives in the cold and wet north of Scotland, but immediately on exploring the idea of hot, dry, arid, windy, she shifts into related mental frame-lines that will allow pleasant, useful conversation around the possible plants the questioner should consider. If for example, her host interjects that one of the recommended plants doesn’t do well because of the soil type, our gardener doesn’t feel rebuked or fearful, instead interested, and she will modify the framework of understanding in the light of this interesting new fact.

Anyway, despite my exploration of this idea of frameworks of understanding, it actually isn’t the point of this article. The point is what people replied to David Perkins; why did most people choose gardening and football, even when most of these people are qualified teachers? There is something deeply profound going on here. Understanding is a lovely state to be in; it’s a lovely place to be. It arises as Perkins says when:

we value.

• we enjoy working on.

• we practice for many hours.

• we get regular feedback on.

we teach to others.

I valued cycling greatly, and believed it to be exciting and valuable both ecologically and for health.

I enjoyed all aspects of it from the engineering and maintenance of the bikes to actually riding.

I rode into work frequently, rode most weekends and some summer evenings.

My cycling friends and I got regular feedback on performance from club races, and tours got longer and into more interesting locations.

I took great pleasure in introducing new people to the activity, or showing them how to maintain their bikes, or how to plan a training programme.

It is interesting to note in retrospect that Perkin’s factors that generate understanding map very well on to the area of learning that I spontaneously thought I understood.

I noticed something else about the typical areas that my colleagues chose. They mostly had a physically engaging element to them, and mostly involved an entry path that was practical rather than theoretical. The kind of activity that has you building a strong mental framework or scaffold, tends in practice to be something you do, not study. Clearly those of us who study something over a long time period, and apply it in more advanced thinking or learning will generate deep understanding, but there is perhaps something more optimal for Perkin’s conditions that arises from doing an activity first, and then getting pleasure and feedback from it. There is also something in learning more about the nuances and techniques that hone your skills or extend your interests. When I learned to play the guitar, it wasn’t theory first. It was a few chords learned from a friend, fumbled through and then sang along with and….hey…the feedback and reward was great so…another few chords…more good feedback…more pleasure…a book to learn the keys and the chord wheel…etc. This really begs a question about the nature of real organic learning leading to deep understanding, and how we can do more of it?

Then of course I notice that there is often a social element to them as well. Cycling became an activity to talk about with the like minded. Your tribe. Guitar playing with other musicians. Don’t put me in a room with other photography enthusiasts! There is something especially encouraging about a social group suffusing your leisure conversations with feedback about your performance, new ideas, shared learning and problem solving. I believe I blogged somewhere before about the difference between learning music as part of a school orchestra, or hockey as part of a school team and learning high school physics. There is more scope in the areas of team performance and competition for Perkin’s factors to develop understanding. In a time when we need more maths, science and engineering learners, with deep understanding, it is disappointing to me that young people who show passion for these areas don’t get to be in teams, sharing feedback, solving problems, celebrating their technical learning like a Geek-Glee club!

So if you want to do some deep, organic learning, possibly leading to some deep understanding and the associated pleasure that brings, don’t study first, just do something! Try an activity, perform some first steps, enjoy them, see where they take you? If you like it, do more, read more, talk more! Be careful before signing up for an academic course because it is just possible that it will deliver your learning the wrong way round and you will never grow true understanding or experience true joy in your learning.