Saturday, May 12, 2007

Understanding ‘understanding’

The following is a reconstruction of my oral report of the session “understanding ‘understanding’” on Day 3 of the 1st Oxford-Kobe Seminar (March 17th, 2007). The session was called for by Prof. Leo van Lier when he expressed some concern with the central notion of ‘understanding’ in Exploratory Practice after the plenary speech by Dr. Dick Allwright was delivered on Day 1. My oral report was presented in the final plenary session of the seminar.


Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. This is a report of the session “understanding ‘understanding.’”

For literally 90 minutes, we kept talking about the notion of understanding. For me, it was one of the best intellectual discussions that I’ve ever participated in. And now your request is to summarize the whole 90 minute argument in a few minutes. What a demand! So you have to forgive me that what I’m going to report from now is my version of summary.

OK, let’s start with a hypothetical episode.

A good teacher understands her class very well. When asked what she really understands, though, she may be lost for clever words. “I know my kids.” She may say. “I understand what’s going on in my classroom.” However, she may stop there.

Is she stupid? No, I don’t think so.

She knows what to do in her classroom and how to do it, both in usual situations and in problematic situations. She’s a wise practitioner with a good understanding of her practice. What does this discrepancy between words and deeds suggest?

What I believe it suggests is that we need to distinguish the following two: a representation of understanding and understanding itself.

A representation of understanding here means roughly articulated understanding or an explanation of understanding in words. My theory is that a representation of understanding is different from understanding.

First, let’s think about understanding itself. Understanding shows itself in perception and action in the world, as Prof. van Lier clarified this morning. A person with a good understanding knows what to do in the world. The better she understands, the better she sees and acts. The better she sees and acts, the better she understands. Understanding, perception and action work interactively in this ‘lived world.’ Understanding in this sense is acting in the world. It is living in the world. If we dare to use a Heideggerian term, understanding is being in the world.

If understanding is acting, living or being in the world, this explains how difficult it is for a practitioner to explain her understanding to an outsider or third person, someone who does not belong to the world, by means of words which are only abstraction from her being in the world. That someone does not act together in the world. He is not in the same world. If only he acts together, live together, is together, he’d probably understands better.

Is it impossible, then, to show our understanding to an outsider altogether? No, again. Understanding shows itself in our action, life and being in the world. If you’re making your classroom a better place to live in, it means your understanding is good and valid.

Also, a representation of understanding isn’t necessarily useless. Dialogue with your colleagues or inner dialogue with yourself in the form of reflective writing probably leads to a better understanding. By verbalizing your understanding, you become more explicitly aware of your being, living and acting in the world, although there always remains some part that is ‘too deep for words.’ What it is like to be in a classroom is a difficult question to answer in words. However, by trying to answer that question, you make your understanding clearer in a different way from leading and showing the life of your classroom.

Trying to understand understanding is a never-ending process (and perhaps a never-successful endeavor). To repeat, understanding is not equal to a representation of understanding. Relating to that point, I’d like to tell a joke about a ballet dancer who was interviewed what she wanted to express in ballet dancing. She allegedly answered that if she was able to express that in words, she wouldn’t dance! Any words would fail to explain your understanding completely, too.

To sum up, understanding is acting, living, and being in the world. It is different from a representation of understanding. But trying to represent our understanding may sometimes help us for a better understanding, thus a better life. Perhaps we should not stop trying to understand our understanding in our open dialogue.

On the last note, I’d like to mention what Prof. Dick Allwright said towards the end of our session. He suggested that perhaps in our discussion we limited ourselves to an intellectual or conceptual understanding. What we may need more may be an empathetic understanding.

Thank you for your attention.

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