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Uh oh! I've mistaken knowledge for understanding again...

We have been recently exploring ideas around pupil progress at Putney High School. When considering the factors that affect students perception of whether they are making progress or not, we realised it was important to acknowledge that there needs to be a greater distinction made between what both staff and students believe about "knowledge" verses "understanding".

We should start by assessing what the difference is between the two terms.

What do they mean?

Interestingly if you google the two terms independently of each other, they bring up the same images for both words (see above).

How are we meant to know the difference, and more importantly ensure we are using them effectively with our students, if google doesn't even differentiate between them?!

We often merge the two concepts into the same meaning, or mistake one for the other. For example, the pdf document attached on ’53 ways to check for understanding’ (picture below) is a widely used across the education sector as a set of AFL tools, but is in fact more about assessing knowledge than understanding! Our most recent Teaching + Learning session focused on clarifying the difference and the importance of both, as well as providing practical AFL tools we can use in lessons to help develop both sets of skills for our students.

I should mention here that all the content around the research found on knowledge and understanding should be attributed to the excellent blog by Sarah Donarski. Found here:

In her blog she mentions the work of Aldous Huxley on the distinction between the two and you can find below the full transcript video of his 1955 lecture:

Sarah references three excellent ideas about how to assess understanding in students (listed below) and the Putney High Teaching + Learning Group explored some further techniques, which we can trial with our student groups after half term.

  1. 1-2-1 Discussion about Text Asking immediate questions about a text challenges their recall and also forces them to apply information to different contexts.

  2. ’Sticks’ Essay Approach Use information from one essay (let’s say ‘Conflict’ in Hamlet) and try to manipulate it into another theme (such as ‘Power in Hamlet’) mostly using the information from their first essay.

  3. Trick Theme Essay Telling students that their essay on Friday will be 1 of 5 themes, and giving them an entirely unseen question. Forcing them to make most of the knowledge they have planned in an unexpected situation.

  4. Chain of Reasoning Provide students with the definition of a term and the conclusion and get them to fill in the gaps and make the links between the definition and conclusion. This forces students to use their reasoning.

  5. Give students the '53 Ways' sheet (picture above) and get them to identify which is the best way to check understanding on the topic they are covering.

Odd One Out

Give students a list of word/concepts and ask them to identify the odd one out. Then ask them to re-look at the list and argue why other words in the list could also be the odd one out. This forces them to think around their initial thoughts and apply their knowledge in an evaluative style.

Try one out for yourself!

If we want our students to make the best progress possible we, as their teachers, need to ensure we are providing them with the right tools and skills to achieve that progress. Differentiating between and being more aware of understanding verses knowledge is a very small part of a much bigger picture, but there is no denying it is a good place to start.

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