‘Understand’ – One Word, SO Many Problems!

                   
                                     un·der·stand/ˌəndərˈstand/
Verb:
1.      Perceive the intended meaning of (words, a language, or speaker): “he could usually make himself understood“.
2.      Perceive the significance, explanation, or cause of (something): “she didn’t really understand the situation”.
Synonyms:
comprehend – realize – see – apprehend – grasp – perceive 



‘Understand’ – surely if we created a corpus of language used in ESL/EFL this word would be near the top. But what do we mean by it and why does it cause us so many problems?

I honestly don’t think there is any teacher in the world who can honestly say they haven’t at least once spent several minutes explaining an activity, probably given an example too, and then looked at twenty or more slightly confused looking faces and said “so, do you understand?” to which the twenty students have all replied “yes, teacher” only for that activity to descend into chaos with half the group of students doing completely different things and the other half doing nothing. ‘Why won’t students just tell us if they don’t understand?’ we then ask ourselves. As teachers we very quickly learn (hopefully anyway) that asking students if they understand is not really a sound method for establishing if they have actually ‘understood’ or not. To make matters even worse, students are smart, cunningly smart, and they deviously use this word to their advantage. It usually goes something like this:

T – Why haven’t you started the activity? You should have started five minutes ago.
St – I don’t understand it, it’s too hard for me.
T – Well, have you actually read it yet or have you just been talking about Psy with your friend?
St – Talking with my friend.
T – So how could you understand it if you haven’t read it?
St – Sorry teacher, I’ll read it now.
T – Thank you!

By claiming a lack of ‘understanding’ students seem to feel it warrants taking an extended break from activities because they happen to feel lazy at that moment. So how, as their teacher, can we actually know if they really don’t ‘understand’ or if they just don’t want to try and ‘understand’? Surely the word ‘try’ and ‘understand’ must go together, especially in ELT. I had a great example of this in my lesson today. The lesson involved ‘understanding’ and simplifying what looks, at first glance, like quite an intimidating text. I had some low level classes that, today, were feeling highly motivated, and they dealt with the text as they were asked, in groups, simplifying the key messages in a form that a first grade middle school student could understand perfectly. But, I also had a high level class that were lethargic and for some reason feeling particularly unmotivated. This class were constantly claiming they could not ‘understand’ the text and claiming that this lack of ‘understanding’ was good reason for not completing the task to their ability.

The difficulties this word creates don’t only stop in the classroom though. Recently 1000’s of native English teachers in Korea lost their jobs, the reason given? A government administered survey of high school and middle school students indicated that Korean students can’t ‘understand’ the native English teachers properly or as well as their Korean teachers. Huh? Yep that’s right; students can’t understand native speakers so the solution is to remove the native speakers. ‘Welcome to Korea’ as they say!

Lack of understanding certainly has a negative connotation in the world of teaching. So, when my co-teacher informed me last week that she thought that some students didn’t fully ‘understand’ my classes this year and that, to find out for sure, she wanted to give students a survey containing the following question, ‘how much of English conversation class did you understand this year?’ to which the students could mark a number from 1 to 10, I wasn’t exactly pleased.

It wasn’t the fact that she thought some students didn’t ‘understand’ the class, I mean I have some students who have lived in America for ten years and some who can’t write their name in English, they can’t all understand everything. What bothered me was the question and establishing what exactly we were hoping to achieve by asking it. There are just too many variables, are we asking whether or not students understood:

– everything I said
– every word in the videos we used in class
– the meaning contained in the materials
– instructions
– how and when to use vocabulary items
– why we were doing the activities we were doing
– how they could use the skills practiced outside of class
– my British accent
(to name just a few)

Don’t get me wrong, if students who should understand my classes are struggling I need to know about it, and I need to know what I can do to change this, but the problem is, how do we objectively measure this?

We also have to consider whether or not a lack of understanding is a bad thing. If students understand everything, will they improve? If students end the class not understanding everything, will they be disheartened? Will they feel let down by their teacher? To take my class today as an example, there is no way every student (or even most students) would understand every word in the text. It was a difficult task, but I didn’t want them to understand every word and every sentence. I wanted them to understand the general meaning, a task they ALL completed successfully, even the low level students. So would they give me a 3 or an 8 out of 10 on the ‘scale of understanding’ for today’s class? Probably a 3!

This is due to another factor we have to consider, educational culture. My students are used to having every word they see and hear translated to them. In Korea this is seen as ‘understanding’. But do they understand it? If we had spent 50 minutes doing that today would they have understood the meaning of the text? Probably not, but what score would today’s lesson have got on the ‘scale of understanding’? Probably an 8! They would probably have given it a higher score than my lesson today, are they wrong to do so? Not necessarily, both these types of understanding certainly do have an effect on our students’ language abilities though.

Of course, I think the task I gave my students was significantly more useful than having the text translated to them, but what use is that if our students are leaving the classroom feeling the opposite due to their 13 years of a certain educational culture that has made them believe they didn’t ‘understand’ it? As teachers should we have to adapt to our students beliefs on understanding? Should we even adapt to our educational institutions beliefs? The only way to find out about their beliefs is to measure their reactions to certain tasks or certain classes, but this brings us back to problems regarding how we measure it.

Understanding is certainly a word that we use often enough, it’s a word which can have huge consequences for us and our students, but, as language teachers do we really have the firm grasp on it we think we have and perhaps should have when dealing with our students as individuals, with our classrooms as a whole or even as a national and global industry? I certainly think I have some work to do in conveying to my students and institution what I want the word ‘understanding’ to mean.

You can follow me on twitter @AlexSWalsh

A must read comment from a friend:


Hi Alex,

A great post here. Thank you much for sharing. I too feel the strain and frustration of fighting the prevailing headwinds. I really like the questions you have asked here and wish you all the luck in successfully querying your institution. I too am following suit.

In times like these it is easy to get frustrated. It is at these times that I try and remind myself that if no one tries to change anything then certainly nothing will change. However, if I put myself out there and voice my opinion, I may not see the change myself, but the effect of those words on the people I share with will ripple on the lake of time. Who knows where and when things begin to change, or why?

As long as there are teachers like you out there pushing the limits and questioning themselves, their students, and their institutions, I truly believe, in the end, we’ll be moving in the right direction.

John

My Reply:

John,

You couldn’t be more right and I don’t think you could have put it any more succulently. I can only hope that we are moving in the right direction. To be honest, frustration isn’t really the feeling I have, but more hope, hope that despite the students and institutions in which we work being so firmly ingrained with a certain idea and concept of understanding, we may still be starting that ripple you mention, a ripple that will hopefully continue to grow in our students’ minds. I don’t necessarily think it is about replacing the current forms of thinking that we encounter on a daily basis, but perhaps adding to those and presenting alternatives that they can also use to their benefit at the same time as their current conceptions and ways of thought.

Cheers to hope,

As always thanks for reading and for your invaluable input.

Alex

Comments

DK
28/11/2012 04:13

Great post! I find myself asking this of my students quite often, but I think for the most part it is mostly out of habit. Usually when I want to ellicit some sort of reaction rather than feel like I’m shining a spotlight on a herd of deer.

For the most part their reaction to the question is enough to judge whether or not they really grasp the concept, ranging from a resounding “yes teacher” to hesitant nods and grunts of assent, which make me want to shake them and say “No you don’t! Why are you nodding!” 🙂

It is much more effective when I question them in order to demonstrate that they understand something, rather than simply asking if they do, for exactly the reasons you poiinted out. Saying they understand is an easy way out and often students will say this to avoid drawing attention to themselves, looking stupid in front of their peers, or having to try and explain what it is they don’t understand.

By allowing them to deomonstrate their understanding t, it allows both the teacher and the student to see that they really do understand, and at the same time it builds their confidence. If it is a grammar concept, I do some problems on the board together, if it’s the instructions for an activity, I ask them what to do after step 1, etc

I agree that the idea of asking students how much they understand in the class as a means of rating the teacher or evaluating the effectiveness of a class is a bad idea. Good for general feedback, sure, but not in order to determine whether or not to keep a native teacher on or to, say, replace them with a robot. We need to have effective ways of assessing their improvement, which is the main focus of education. It’s not just about how much you understand in a class, but how much more you can understand because of a class.

Reply
AlienTeachers
28/11/2012 17:34

Hey ‘DK’!

First of all thanks for reading and thanks even more for commenting 🙂 I think your mention of students trying to deflect any potential attention is extremely important, especially in the context in which we work. The students will do anything to not stand out from their friends, including pretending the other do or don’t understand when it suits them!

I also think you have provided a wonderful conclusion when you said “It’s not just about how much you understand in a class, but how much more you can understand because of a class.” I guess the only problem with this is that we have to help our students realise what it is that we want them to understand as it’s not always obvious.

Thanks again for reading and commenting,

Alex

Reply
28/11/2012 17:59

Hi Alex,

A great post here. Thank you much for sharing. I too feel the strain and frustration of fighting the prevailing headwinds. I really like the questions you have asked here and wish you all the luck in successfully querying your institution. I too am following suit.

In times like these it is easy to get frustrated. It is at these times that I try and remind myself that if no one tries to change anything then certainly nothing will change. However, if I put myself out there and voice my opinion, I may not see the change myself, but the effect of those words on the people I share with will ripple on the lake of time. Who knows where and when things begin to change, or why?

As long as there are teachers like you out there pushing the limits and questioning themselves, their students, and their institutions, I truly believe, in the end, we’ll be moving in the right direction.

John

Reply
29/11/2012 03:37

Alex,

I taught in the U.S. for 4 years (chemistry, not English) and you bring up some excellent questions. One thing emphasized in our school system was having a daily goal (or goals) posted prominently in the room for each lesson. I started each class by calling attention to the objective, and then at the end I would ask the students to perform some measure of that goal.

For example, in the lesson with the complex text you mentioned, you may have had the objective be something along the lines of “students will accurately summarize a complex text.” At the end of the lesson, you could emphasize that goal by asking students to fill out a “ticket to leave” which is written on an index card or half sheet of paper (the task is presented on the board or instructions given orally and the students write their responses on their tickets). In this example, the ticket to leave might be “use 1-3 sentences to summarize the text we read in class today.” When students hand in their “tickets to leave” they may then start packing up their things to get ready for the next class or lesson. In this function, the TTL also serves as a transition and class management tool.

Granted, the students may have already done something similar as part of the lesson, but it never hurts to re-emphasize the important objectives. Collecting the tickets also gives you another assessment tool so that YOU can rate how successful you think the lesson was and learn for the next round. You can also gather quantitative data a little more easily when you have those tickets and can simply do a quick read through and say that x% of the students successfully met the objective (or not).

Ultimately, the task at hand really comes down to clearly defining your lesson objectives for every lesson and then coming up with some way to measure the success, neither of which is a simple matter!

Julie

Reply
29/11/2012 03:39

I forgot to emphasize the importance of the word “summarize.” Using specific action verbs in your goals helps to avoid the nefariously nebulous “understand.”

Reply
AlienTeachers
06/12/2012 18:53

Hi Julie!

Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment (and sorry for my delayed reply, it’s exam time next week so a bit busy!)

I think your ticket to leave idea is a fantastic one, I’m going to give it a go at the end of a class before the end of the semester to see how it goes and figure out the best way to implement it next year. Did you do it in every single class so as to create a routine among the students?

Thanks again,

Alex

AlienTeachers
06/12/2012 18:55

Hi again Julie!

Forgot to respond to your action goals in the objectives. I like to use Bloom’s Taxonomy of Measurable Verbs (http://www.clemson.edu/assessment/assessmentpractices/referencematerials/documents/Blooms%20Taxonomy%20Action%20Verbs.pdf) which I am sure you know of, it definitely helps to make sure lesson objectives are clear and measurable.

thanks again,

Alex

Reply
Georgeanna
29/11/2012 06:57

@Julie
great idea! I like the idea of a Ticket to leave, and if I had younger/less proficient students (as I teach mostly English courses), I would do that. One thing I’ve done (which is..somewhat similar) is to have students in my MS Office skills course produce a file at the end of each day which must be emailed to me. (They are required to ask for an extension if they couldn’t finish during class time.) Unfortunately, I don’t get to review _all_ of the files (as in, every single class days’ worth of files, just some of the class days’ files). I haven’t thought of what might be done for other classes, but I think I’d like to incorporate something!

In a somewhat related sense, I have students (in all my courses) fill out a status report (which is handed in at the beginning of class.. a handy way to get attendance and also…keep reading :D). It asks them to fill out the current ‘task’ we’re working on (since usually tasks or projects are on-going) and their current ‘status’ on that task or project. It is a way for me to get feedback (of ‘understanding,’ too!) and answer questions they may not have asked before. Of course, here too, I have people in class asking their friends, “What task are we working on?” (sniff sniff…guess they didn’t ‘understand’)

in response to the original post…
I am reminded of a conversation with a teacher trainer here in Daegu who mentioned a class (as in, time) when they tried to call attention to their participants’ (i.e. the teachers being trained) use of the phrase “This is difficult, but…” which was so often used to introduce tasks or activities (when the teachers were doing practice teaching sessions). I would like to link (or point out the link that exists to connect) this to the whole mess surrounding “understanding” because surely if teachers are _telling_ you that something is going to be difficult, you’re already somehow losing points on the ‘understanding’ scale (or, your possibilities for ‘understanding’ and ‘success’ have now been lowered).

I am …baffled, to say the least…that people would do this. I admit I have done it a few times myself!! (If my poor memory serves me correctly, not in the last year or two, thankfully!)

The concept of translating every word (missing the forest for the trees) in an effort to ‘understand’ something peeves me greatly. I try to hard in my reading courses to wean students off of that. Using literature circles to discuss their reading does help them sort of wean themselves, too. But, that’s a digression..

I wish you the best of good fortune, patience, and great results in your efforts to resolve this issue/address it. Look forward to hearing more insights!

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