Ruminations on the nature of understanding

With Thanks To …

My thanks go to Mary-Kay Goindi (twitter: @MaryKayG) and Tom Whitby (Ning: , twitter : @tomwhitby) for prompting this post.

The exchange of tweets that led to this post is:

MaryKayG: “Teaching should be about uncovering rather than covering so that the outcome is learning rather than remembering.” 12-Nov-2009, 20:12

philhart: “.@MaryKayG You pose a deep question about the nature of understanding. I wish I knew the answer” 12-Nov-2009, 20:14

tomwhitby: “@philhart Does not knowing the answer to that question offer some insight into the nature of understanding? I wish I knew the answer” 12-Nov-2009, 20:21

philhart: “.@tomwhitby You and me too!” 12-Nov-2009, 20:23

Initial Thoughts

For me, learning is founded on the nature of our perceptions of the world, and how we come to acquire those perceptions. Our perceptions and our motives govern how we behave in the world. This in turn impacts on how we learn.


Knowledge, or “things that I know”: Some knowledge concerns long-term things (“If I drop a brick on my toe, it will hurt”), while other knowledge is fleeting (“That glass is full on orange juice” – at the moment). They are facts.


The word “competence” is used here in its educational sense, in that somebody’s response to something can be described as:

  • can recognise …
  • can describe …
  • can explain …
  • can develop …

which reflect varying amounts of knowledge about the subject. In this sense, somebody receives a stimulus, compares it with what they already know, and respond accordingly. To be able to do this, the individual must have learned something (even if it is only what it looks/feels/sounds/tastes like) and be remembering that.

Gaining Understanding

It is perhaps a fine distinction, but for me a fact is only useful to me if it has relevance to my life. By transforming knowledge into understanding, I can act on it.

Part of my learning comes from being presented with things to learn about. This includes things like numbers, and I am numerate as a result. I was taught French three separate times: it was not until I spent some time in France that I really started learning French.

Another part of my learning comes from puzzling out the answer to something. This is in a sense where my teacher has withheld the answer from me, but is nevertheless in a position to verify my answer when I have the “Aha!” moment. That I have found an answer myself means that I am more likely to remember it.

Da Capo

The more I look at MaryKayG’s initial tweet, the less I think I understand what she was saying, but I am grateful to her for making me think!

ESL and a Monolingual Arabic Class


My motive for this post is to share with other ESL teachers what I learned from teaching a group of Arabic-speaking learners.

Classroom Observations

Work with the monolingual group experienced all the usual risks and benefits of them being monolingual. I won’t bore you with repeating the details, as I expect that you are already well-acquainted with them. All the other things that you would expect with an Intermediate class were also present: wrong tenses, single/plural agreement, etc.

What struck me was the use of electronic dictionaries to “translate” large amounts of text from Arabic into English. This highlighted a number of issues, explored below.


By way of example, consider the words “resist” and “overcome”. While their meaning are similar, they are not identical, and can lead to an apparent nonsense: “to resist problems” where the author clearly meant “to overcome problems”.


Translation from a second language into one’s own language using an automatic translator strikes me as being a valid use of such translators. Being master of one’s own tongue means that identification of translational goofs is easy, and can sometimes be a cause for amusement.

However, using such a translator to go in the other direction is fraught with dangers, and I much prefer to get a native speaker of the second language to verify the translation before I go public. I, and quite clearly my students, cannot recognise when the automatic translator gets it wrong.

Long Sentences

At this point, I am unsure about how sentences are commonly structured in Arabic. They may be long, short, or mixed by convention. What I have seen (in the two written submissions to date) is that writers have been putting long sentences (in Arabic) through the automatic translators, and producing equally long sentences whose meaning is quite impenetrable in English.

Next Steps

My immediate next step will be to encourage the learners to use much shorter sentences when they enter text into their translators. I see this as a stepping-stone to my own understanding of what they want to say, and I can then help them to understand the meanings and connotations of new words.

As see this as a pathway for these students to increase their own command of that most infernal of languages: English.

Effective Teaching?

With Thanks To …

My thanks go to Mark Weston (web site:, twitter @ShiftParadigm) for prompting this post.

His original tweet was “RT@djmath Teaching is not rocket science. It is…far more complex, demanding work than rocket sci. Richard Elmore, Harvard via @kdwashburn“, and it made me ponder my own practice as a teacher. He then went on to observe “@philhart Ha! Perhaps simple, elegant rules and actions reflecting deep understanding…“. Yikes, thinks I: “Am I that transparent?”.

My Own Approach


For me, my job is to escort each learner to whatever is their learning goal.

Educational System

Learning goals can be made explicit, as in for example Units of Competency under the Australian Quality Training Framework (AQTF). For me, the contextualisation of such documents into the learner’s own reality is simple, and at times feels to be merely clerical.


“A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step” (Chinese proverb). Equally, eating an elephant is best done with small mouthfuls. I carve up the contents of the learning into sizes to suit my learners’ mouths.


This is easier in some subjects than others, e.g Maths compared with English, but it still comes down to comparing student product with the learning outcomes specified in the relevant document. If no such document exists, then I am free to write my own.

Classroom Dynamic

The classroom dynamic is just about people sharing a common purpose. I try to make it enjoyable (I find that it aids the learning process), and for the life of me I cannot see why we should not all be enjoying ourselves in the process.

Mixing These Ingredients Together

It is the classroom dynamic, judging how everybody feels at the moment, that sets the agenda on a second-by-second basis.

Micro Learning in the Age of Web 2.0


This post is a personal reflection on the way that learning seems to have changed since I was a child, and focuses on the impact that Web 2.0 has had on the way I learn.

Schooling, Old Style

As a child, my school experiences were typical of the time. I see today’s children also having those same experiences. As a teacher, I have unconciously carried some of those childhood learning experiences into my practice today. Upon reflection, I think that most of them are still valid.

Having said that, while those practices may have sufficient by themselves some decades ago, I believe that modern teaching practice must take into account the new ways that learners can access knowledge. Failure to do so is to handicap today’s learners.

The Days of Books

Part of my learning included how to access information. Those of us of a certain vintage may well remember the importance of the Dewey Decimal system as a meaning of locating learning resources. To any librarian, that system must still be an invaluable tool.

The Oxford English Dictionary is available in hardback, all 20 volumes of it, for a mere $995 (US). It is also over a decade old. The Encyclop√¶dia Britannica can be had in 32 volumes for around $2,000 (US), and it is next year’s edition.

The Development of Access to Information

Search engines have saved me a lot of time and effort. It means that I have learned about, and used, things of which I would otherwise have remained ignorant. This is access to information prepared by others in anticipation of questions being asked by people like me.

Personal Learning Networks (PLN) have vastly extended the number of people of whom I can ask questions. Before things like Twitter took off, I was reliant on asking questions of people whom I had met in person. Now, when I ask a question, I can receive answers responding directly and immediately to my question, and this from hundreds of people. No author has had to anticipate my question, and the people who respond inevitably add their own touches of personality to the answers.

Like all new technologies, there are dangers as well as benefits. One of the chief dangers in this context is misinformation. I have seen answers that are so far away from what is accepted by specialists in their field that those answers are potentially lethal to anybody who acts on them. In this case, the resource can be used as its own antidote: by doing a reasonably thorough investigation, it is possible to identify information that is well researched and has a good foundation in academia.

Impact on Teaching and Learning

I expect that there are already some forward-thinking schools and colleges that are already taking full advantage of these relatively new ways of accessing information. From my own perspective, I have not seen institutions around here that do so, nor have I seen anything that suggests this as a mainstream approach to learning in any of the curriculum documents that I have seen in this country.

I know that there are some dedicated individuals individuals world-wide (and in this country as well) who recognise the value of learning by these methods, yet their efforts are being resisted by backward thinking educational and political systems. We need to get this message out to the wider community, and reach the point where all parents demand this as a right for their children.