There is a difference in meaning among the words “teaching,” “learning” and “understanding,” all three of which tend to be lumped together when we talk about schooling.
To teach is “to train by formal instruction and supervised practice especially in a skill, trade, or profession.”
To learn is “to gain knowledge of ,or skill in, by study, instruction, or experience.”
To understand is “to be thoroughly familiar with the character and propensities of concepts and to be able to “interpret in one of a number of possible ways.”
Teaching can be a one-way process– from teacher to learner. It is directive and not necessarily receptive. To teach is to put forth information without regard to whether learning takes place. Propaganda is a form of teaching. Training (as in training children to walk down the hall, memorize times tables and dates in American history, learning the meanings of words on a spelling test) is a form of teaching.
Learning is receptive but, again, is a one-way process. Each student learns something in their own way but they do take something away from it. One can learn their times tables, how to walk down the hall, memorize dates in American history, and the definitions of new words.
But, to what end do we teach and learn?
Understanding calls for a higher standard. One must be able to make judgments, have opinions, apply what one has learned and be able to use it in different contexts. Do children understand that the reason they have to walk down the hall is that they won’t disturb others? Do students understand that memorizing the times tables will help them solve math problems faster and with greater accuracy? Do children understand why it is important to know that the American Civil War began while slavery was still legal in most of America? Do students understand that words can have several different meanings, depending on the context of use?
Today our culture is putting lots of time and effort into teaching and learning and not enough on understanding. The result could be a country filled with people who know a lot but don’t know what to do with the knowledge. Or worse, we will become a population that idolizes those with “easy” answers but fails to understand how complicated the world really is.
The power of the internet, “alternative facts,” bots, fake news (“real” fake news, not the “fake” fake news), the emphasis on “learning” as much as possible in the shortest time possible; all of this works against what good schools and good teachers try to do.
Understanding isn’t always easy. To build understanding teachers must be given the time, administrative support and freedom to know each child as well as (or more) than knowing the curriculum. We must find ways to engage children more than they are engaged in Snapchat or Instagram or, conversely, find way to use Snapchat and Instagram to build understanding.
We are at a crossroads in education. While the world around us is moving exponentially faster, the little humans we teach are moving at, well, a human rate. Teachers and students can experience the joyful pursuit of understanding…if we understand its importance.