Knowledge Does Not Equal Understanding

I recently watched a video of an intelligent man trying to ride a bicycle. Seems simple right? I mean how often have we heard the phrase it’s like riding a bike? Countless times. And why? Because it is so ingrained in us that once you learn to ride a bike that is a soft skill you never lose. The reason this video was so unique, however, is that the bike was not ordinary. It had one slight alteration. If you turned the handlebars to the left the front wheel went to the right, and if you turned the handlebars to the right the front wheel went left. Well this intelligent engineer was able to eventually learn to ride this reverse bike after some time. Then, while on a speaking trip in Europe, he attempted to ride a normal bike and it took him some time to not fall off of it. He had rewired that neural pathway in his brain associated with riding a bike. He had the complete knowledge of how to ride a bike both times. As someone with an engineering background he even had the knowledge of what to expect on the reverse bike. But that knowledge did not automatically relate to understanding. In fact in the video this man repeated the phrase knowledge does not equal understanding several times to emphasize what he was illustrating.

And you know I so love that phrase – knowledge does not equal understanding. I am in the process of redesigning my classroom from a semi normal history class (I say semi normal because already I do so much more than the typical notes/lecture/worksheets that permeates history & social studies departments around the globe) into a complete history lab. As I work on the design piece in preparation of several grant proposals, I find this phrase resonates with much of what I am attempting.

A student may know some facts, even enough to pass any relevant questions on an AP test, about the Pullman Strike of 1894. But do they know it deeply, do they understand the intricacies? They may know that it happened in the Pullman company town several miles south of downtown Chicago. They may know the famed Florence Hotel played a role. They may know there was an issue with pay. They may know the role the Federal Government & President Cleveland eventually had in ending the strike. They may know the role Eugene Debs played in escalating the strike to the point he wound up in prison. Still though, does this inventory, potentially even exhaustive inventory, of their knowledge necessitate understanding? I do not think so. To me being able to convey full understanding of this issue a student would need to show some form of transfer of knowledge. Perhaps an open-ended short answer/essay prompt like:

Evaluate the extent to which the events and eventual result of the Pullman Strike of 1894 serve to inform and illuminate the present day struggle between the Service Employees International Union and local municipalities, as well as the various states and Federal Government as they debate a raising of the Federal minimum wage to $15 an hour?

I know this would show a much deeper level of understanding. I also know that to achieve high results on a much more summative assessment I would have to teach at a completely different level. I also know I am hindered greatly by own lack of neural plasticity, or perhaps laziness. I have just under 100 AP History students. I can grade a multiple choice test by holding their answer sheet in front of my laptop’s camera. Grading a single essay or essays takes much longer and eats into my time watching sports on the weekend.

So to truly get to the point I am aiming for in my class; it is not only my students that need certain neural pathways rewired, it is me as well. And further my students will only get as far as I personally am willing to take myself. The limits I place on my neural plasticity will adversely affect them. To best prepare my students for future success in an ever advancing and changing world I have to be continually willing to change from what is easy and routine to what is necessary.

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