Weasel Words #2: Understand

October 30, 2012

Some concepts, like knowledge, are very useful in education. Others, like self-esteem, are invariably harmful and used to justify  failure to educate. However, there is another category of concepts. There are also ideas that frustrate debate through sheer ambiguity; that allow arguments to rest on equivocation. These are the Weasel Words.

I discussed previously how confused discussion of understanding was ,and how it was used to marginalise the teaching of knowledge

Here, I want to make it particularly clear how much people equivocate with the word “understand” in order to justify particular types of teaching. Here are the four senses of the word “understand” that we tend to see in education debate.

1) To know the meaning of (the word).

e.g. ‘multiply’ means ‘lots of’

2) To know, or appreciate, the significance of.

e.g. Multiplying is an important skill for doing other types of calculations, such as fractions.

3) To be able to discuss in the abstract.

e.g. She knows that a×b = b×a

4) To be able to apply to real-life contexts.

e.g. If there are 8 bottles  of beer in a crate, and I drink 4 crates, then I am going to be very ill in the morning.

In education debate these different senses are frequently combined so as to sideline the learning of knowledge. The first definition is oftem assumed in order to make an uncontroversial claim like “it’s no good just memorising facts, you must understand them”. Nobody is ever going to object to this. No matter how much you advocate learning facts, there is clearly something wrong if you learnt  statements that are just gibberish to you. Not only that, but it is very difficult to learn off by heart something you don’t understand. A lot of questions which appear to be testing recall, may actually be testing understanding of things that nobody could hope to recall if they didn’t understand them first. Memorising a passage in a foreign language, or the proof of a mathematical theorem, would be incredibly challenging without some understanding of the language or the maths.

However, once we have accepted “understanding” in this first sense, then the other senses are smuggled into the discussion as if they were more controversial. If we consider the second definition of “understanding” we might use phrases such as:

  • “There’s no point studying the text of Romeo and Juliet. It’s a play and can only be truly understood if seen performed”.
  • “There’s no point learning that that the Battle of Hastings was in 1066. You haven’t understood it unless you know why it is important”.

This is used as an excuse to ensure that teaching of knowledge is seen as inadequate without teaching some particular attitude to that knowledge. Now I am not claiming here that students shouldn’t know why things they learn are worth knowing, I am simply claiming that the above judgements go beyond claiming the inadequacy of rote. You can understand something without understanding its importance. If somebody has learnt something and still sees no reason for it, then there is an issue, but it might simply be they haven’t learnt enough context or related information. It might be they haven’t valued it for their own personal reasons, like not liking the teacher. It does not mean they never understood it, or that in order to truly teach it in the first place the teacher should have taught them to appreciate it.

As for the third definition, we might hear somebody say:

  • “Times tables emphasise that idea that maths is all about remembering. Research shows, however, that what children really need to work on is number sense.” (from here)
  • “History is about evaluating sources not knowing a list of events”.

The idea is that there are underlying principles more important than having detailed knowledge. This is true in as far as there is abstract knowledge as well as concrete knowledge. This should not be confused with the idea that there is something which transcends knowledge which can be taught instead. There is no reason to favour the abstract over the concrete in all cases. There is no reason to think that grasping an abstract theory necessarily shows a greater grasp of a topic than having a lot of knowledge about it. We learn best from the concrete to the abstract. Learning a lot of facts helps us develop a grasp of concepts. Learning concepts does not necessarily help us learn facts. There is often more than one abstract model which can be taught, and they can often be highly contentious. Many academic disciplines have many contradictory theories. A Marxist “understanding” of history might be entirely different to a liberal one. That’s not too say these different views shouldn’t be taught, but we should not declare a student to have “understood” history when they have grasped a particular theory. An “understanding” may be so wrong as to distort our grasp of the facts. Some people have such a strong belief in a theory of historical progress that they simply cannot accept that, say, the Reformation harmed education in England or that the theories behind the holocaust were developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Countless scientific discoveries have been contested, not because of a lack of empirical evidence, but because they contradicted the theories of the day at a very fundamental level. I am far from being somebody who discounts theories or conceptual reasoning as worthless, but we should be weary of efforts to suggest that grasp of an abstract theory indicates true understanding of a topic.

Finally, we have the fourth sense. According to this, true understanding can only be demonstrated by application of learning to a supposedly practical or real-life situation. It is notable just how contrary this is to the third definition of understanding, despite both of them being strongly held ideas within the progressive tradition. It is always a shock when somebody manages to conflate these two different senses of the word “understanding” into one, despite being polar opposites.

It is not unreasonable to claim that being able to apply knowledge is important. The problem is that people are often conceptually very shaky about how we gain this ability to apply knowledge and the concept of “understanding” can be unhelpful here. There are two main ways we learn to apply knowledge. Firstly, we learn about, or practise, that particular application. So if we want to apply our knowledge of the French language to buying a loaf of bread, we practise buying a loaf of bread. If we wish to use our knowledge of percentages to calculate compound interest, then we learn how to calculate compound interest and then practise that sort of calculation. It would seem odd, however, to view the mastery of either to show much additional understanding. It is far from clear how this differs from any other type of knowledge. The worst side-effect of this sort of approach has to be the “functional” exam question which is meant to assess understanding rather than knowledge, but actually assesses the rather useless knowledge of knowing how to answer a particular type of exam question.

The other type of application, the one which is believed more seriously to demonstrate understanding, is the application to problem-solving. In this situation students are presented with a novel problem, have to apply existing knowledge to it and, if they can, this is taken to demonstrate understanding. The conceptual difficulty here is that “understanding” then becomes taken to be some kind of general problem solving ability which must be practised in place of the acquisition of knowledge or fluency with knowledge. However, in practice, our ability to solve new problems depends on the extent of our background knowledge and our fluency with it (see Willingham 2009). While fluency with knowledge could be described as “understanding” it is clearly quite a different type of understanding to those mentioned earlier and teaching understanding in this sense is not clearly distinct from teaching knowledge.

Whenever anybody suggests that one teaching method is superior to another because it teaches “understanding” we need to identify immediately what is meant. Too often the claim is simply an attempt to sideline knowledge in favour of talking about the topic, or feeling a particular way about it.


Willingham, Daniel T, Why Don’t Students Like School,  Jossey-Bass, 2009


  1. I think this is always a useful one to throw about as I feel it is one of the key issues in learning (and perhaps teaching). I think you have summarised some of the different approaches to thinking about “understanding” but you would probably be the first to agree that your list is not exhaustive.

    ‘Whenever anybody suggests that one teaching method is superior to another because it teaches “understanding” we need to identify immediately what is meant.’

    I have to agree with this one as people use the term in a number of ways. However I will take issue as I have in the past with the notion that knowledge is sidelined to make way for understanding in some systematic way that undermines learning somehow.

    I am not sure why focusing on understanding makes “understand” a weasel word. I think if one is to focus on understanding, it is wise to first have a good grasp of what one means by understand, i.e. in one sense one should understand the term understand.

    My experience has been that very few UK trained teachers have a good grasp of the meaning (or meanings) of understand and my view this is partly due to the fact that most trainers of teachers have a poor grasp of the thing.

    The idea that one can understand anything without a grasp of a certain amount of knowledge is I think a little absurd and if you have any examples/links I would appreciate them.

    As Dan Willingham says, and I paraphrase as my copy of the book is at home, but I believe I capture the essence….

    “understanding is remembering in disguise”

    There are also of course many different (an many correct) views of what knowledge is, but we shoul dnever ignore the fact that understanding is knowledge in disguise, it is not simply knowedge.

  2. My current favourite weasel word is “inappropriate” – used to close down all and any discussion that is outside the boundaries of accepted PC discourse. Often uttered by purse-mouths with no humour and little or no classroom teaching in their job description.

  3. I think what these types of people are actually getting at is that as the establishment have endeavoured to reduce the curriculum into a neat set of categorised and levelled objective statements, the teaching has changed.
    There is, too often, an approach to teaching that sees the curriculum/syllabus as the whole rather than the core and considers something ‘taught’ when it has been mentioned in isolation.
    I don’t really see how you can justify calling ‘Understand’ a weasel word. Many of those employing it intend (maybe unwittingly) the entire spectrum of the definition and are reacting to lazy curriculum- and syllabus-driven learning. OK, so they have created a straw man of ‘pure rote knowledge teaching’, but you have just done the same in suggesting they seek to avoid teaching knowledge.

  4. […] is that understanding is not well-defined. I found four definitions for it and wrote about them here, and for these talks I added another possible definition that it could mean “knowing the […]

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