“They’ve told us that our students don’t show genuine understanding. It’s all just surface. They’ve said we’ve got to do something about it.”

“Yes. We need to use strategies that show we’re deepening their understanding.”

“Yes. They need to understand don’t they? But they need to understand deeper. Yes. Let’s do that.”

“Yes! Let’s. What? What are we doing?”

“Well. We’ll get them to understand.”

“Ok. Yes. I understand.”

I imagine that this is the kind of conversation which has gone on in more than no schools in the past. It’s the kind of conversation about education in schools which contains so many assumptions and has the potential to mean almost nothing – the kind of conversation which can result in either almost nothing happening or, more dangerously, lots of things happening that have very little impact on students. Neither of the people involved in the dialogue really grasps what the other is saying and neither knows what strategies are being discussed.

My next two posts will focus on understanding.

  • This post will look at what understanding is, if it exists at all, and how we check for it.
  • The next post will explore in more detail how we might go about developing students’ levels of understanding (or interconnected knowledge)  with a specific focus on the teaching of English.

Lego? Lego! Can’t hold me back any more.

I recently built this Lego model for my three your old boy.

2016-02-19 18.08.36

Awful isn’t it? However, it may surprise you to know that I was actually pretty proud of this dodgy space buggy because, tragically, it is genuinely better than I was capable of as a youngster. It’s well known in my family that I am “no good at Lego” – not the kind of Lego that you put together with instructions, but the kind of thing you build once you’ve finished with the original model.

As if to highlight this lack of Lego-ing skill, when I self-deprecatingly posted the photo above on Facebook, it took my younger brother only a matter of minutes to respond that, as a child, this had been about the limits of my space ship building capabilities:


So, how does this shared belief that I am “no good at Lego” connect with the problem of understanding understanding?

Hey Ho. Lego.

In order to comprehend understanding more fully, it is first useful to explore knowledge.

In terms of Lego and the image above, I can know that this piece is blue or this piece is grey. I can also know that this is a “flat piece” or this piece is a “block.” Likewise, I could know that this piece is a “2×4” or this is a “6×12” piece. I either know these things or I don’t. It is binary. This one’s blue. This one’s not blue. This one’s grey. This one’s not grey.

I don’t have to know what a grey, 6×12 flat piece is in order to select the blue, 2×4 block in the picture above. Among other things, I need to know what a block is, what blue is and what the numbers and symbol x stand for. At this level – the level of selecting one coloured piece from a pile – there is little interactivity between pieces of knowledge. 

I would doubt that anyone would argue that selecting one block demonstrates an understanding of Lego. So what would understanding look like? How would you check for understanding?

Would you check by asking someone to place a blue, 2×4 block in the exact centre of a grey, 6×12 flat piece? Would you check by asking someone to build an awful space buggy? Would you check by asking someone to build this, with instructions?

Spaceship 3

Or, would you check by asking them to build this without instructions?

Spaceship 2

Or, would you check if they could build the whole of Lego Land without instructions? Would that demonstrate an understanding of Lego? At what stage do we move from knowing to understanding?

I know that this bit is blue and I know that this bit is grey. I know that, when you connect this bit to these bits, it starts to look like something else. I know that, when I connect all of these bits together in the right way, it makes what looks like a whole world of stuff. Wow! I’ve made Lego Land.

To be successful in any of these tasks requires increasing amounts of interconnected knowledge. The more you are able to make links between the things that you know, the more you understand and the greater the level of challenge you can successfully take on to prove your level of understanding. You can understand a little bit or you can understand a lot – you have a lot or a little bit of interconnected knowledge. That is to say, what some people call understanding and others term interrelated knowledge, as Greg Ashman argues here, is like a fractal.

Perhaps more importantly, there is a tipping point at which, once you have a certain amount of interconnected knowledge, inferring and making knew links becomes both easier and more accurate. In Lego terms, once you have created enough models of a similar kind from the instructions, you can begin to make models without the instructions which also look pretty convincing. In reading terms, once you know enough vocabulary, once you have been exposed to enough examples of high quality texts, once your teacher has expertly modeled analytical writing and succinctly explained how to craft a beautiful essay, then you stand a chance of producing one.

To unpick this further, let’s go back to my issue with being “no good at Lego.” How did this family in-joke come about?

Everything’s not so awesome after all.

In contrast to me, my older brother was the Yoda of Lego. I was Jar Jar Binks.

By the time I was old enough to play with the bricks, he had thousands of pieces sorted into similar colours and stored in a variety of recycled ice-cream tubs. I don’t recall ever being bought any Lego of my own, though I may be wrong. If I was, it wasn’t long before my kits were subsumed into these containers. As a result, I knew very well how to sort Lego blocks into their variety of shades but unfortunately was stuck at the level of binary knowledge. That’s a blue block. It goes in there. That’s a tyre. It goes in there. That’s a dodgy, Lego man toupee. It goes in there.

As the pieces were so swiftly swept into the tubs of doom, I had very little experience of building a kit into a castle or a space station or a fire station from its instructions. In retrospect, I can see that this meant the process of making a model from my imagination became much more challenging. When you have a kit in front of you and a clear set of instructions, you begin to build knowledge of common processes. You don’t need to pick the pieces out of the boxes. They’re all pre-selected in a bag and you just follow the steps.

If you follow the steps enough times, these common processes become interconnected knowledge and you are starting to develop what some people would describe as understanding. This means that, when you are trying to deal with making something from scratch from your imagination, you’re not only trying to work as hard to keep the image of the thing in your head and make up the processes. When I think about it like this, it is far less surprising that my ability to demonstrate an understanding of Lego was at a much lower level than my brother’s.

And there’s the final issue I want to address. My propensity to compare my own skills to my brother’s was actually damaging.

  • I had limited knowledge.
  • There were few connections between the elements of knowledge which I did have.
  • I wasn’t following any sets of instructions.
  • I wasn’t using worked examples.
  • I was unable to see that my inability to apply the limited knowledge I did have to demonstrate understanding was anything other than to do with the fact that I was “no good at Lego.” Things would always be this way.

In my next post, I’ll look at how we might address some similar issues in the English classroom, supporting and challenging students to develop connections between elements of knowledge so that they read and write better.

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