Crossing the rigor divide: A new lens on the journey from knowing to understanding

Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

Crossing the rigor divide: A new lens on the journey from knowing to understanding

“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” — Albert Einstein

Knowing and understanding are two sides of the same coin. They are both important, and they work together as essential elements on a student’s learning journey. 

Knowing is about facts, while understanding is about concepts. Knowing is the ability to recall information. It asks for memorization or basic recall of data which have been previously presented, while understanding is the ability to make sense of information. It  is about being able to apply what you have learnt to solve problems, make decisions or connect with the world. Knowing is about collecting building blocks (Quantitative). Understanding is the arranging and rearranging of the blocks to build something new (Qualitative). Knowing is surface-level, while understanding is deep. Knowing is about being able to repeat, while understanding is about being able to explain.

When analyzing student responses to the Verso check-in, whether by machine learning, a Verso learning specialist or collaboratively with peers in PLCs in our partner schools, a frequent observation is that students appear to value the sharing of facts acquired in a lesson rather than demonstrating understanding of the learning objective. 

There may be a number of reasons for this, including:

  • When sharing the learning objective, instead of completing the sentence “We are learning to…”, a large percentage of students replace  the hard coded sentence starter with “We are learning about…”. Students reporting that they were “learning about the civil war” could position collection of facts over understanding of concepts such as cause and effect or periodization. Whereas, “We are learning to identify the causes of the civil war” requires students to demonstrate conceptual understanding”
  • The widespread use of multiple choice assessments and quizzes often sends a message that memorization is the goal of learning and students are rewarded for recall.
  • A large percentage of students who self asses as “almost there” qualify their assessment by saying that they “just need to remember all the facts”
  • Pacing guides can push teachers into doing the heavy lifting on behalf of their students so rather than investigating events that could be considered causes of WW1, students are given the mnemonic MAIN and asked to remember it. 
  • Students do not have access to criteria or a framework to use for demonstrating understanding
  • Students may not understand the difference between knowing and understanding, and may therefore value the ability to recall information over the ability to understand it.

In these classes it is also rare to see students reporting a level of challenge (on a scale of 1-5) that is higher than 2. Again this could be due to a number of factors, and as such has not been as useful as we would have hoped for the teacher in reflecting on their learning design, or  for the student in understanding where to go next.

For this reason, we are trialing a new reflection question. 

Instead of asking students to consider how challenging they found their learning, we have developed a simple taxonomy that allows students to think about where they are on their journey as a learner.

Fig 1. Sliding scale indicating every statement on the learning journey

Students are now asked to select a statement on a sliding scale from 1-5 that best fits where they are on their learning journey. Every stage after stage 1 offers a success point. (Fig 1)

The taxonomy supports the transition from surface (Levels 2 and 3) to deep (Levels 3 and 4) and creates a shared language for learning.

Levels 2 and 3 require students to collect the building blocks that are required to be connected in levels 4 and 5. It is only at levels 4 and 5 that students can start to transition from knowing to being able to explain , apply and transfer. 

It is intended  that the taxonomy will allow students to think about their learning in a new way, whilst also presenting a common framework for evaluating and designing learning experiences. It will inform the development of success criteria and rubrics designed to lead students in successfully progressing through each stage of the learner journey and making the transition from “knowing about..” to being able to “demonstrate understanding of…”. 

Fig 2. The teacher can see each  student’s selection on their response cards on the teacher dashboard. 

Fig 3. Student responses can be filtered based on their reported learning stage, informing small group work, differentiation and teacher intervention