Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What Does it Mean to Understand?

Photo courtesy of Saad Faruque

Ellin Oliver Keene brings students to life in her writing: a seven year old, Jamika, prompted her book when she queried:
“All my life, there’s just one thing I don’t ever understand.  Y’all always say that – does this book make sense?  …  Ms. McKin, she say, ‘Jamika, does that book make sense to you, you feel like y’all are understanding that book, because you know the most important thing about books is they got to make sense to you.’ … But, none a y’all ever say what make sense mean.” (Keene, To Understand 2-3)

Ellin Oliver Keene's book, To Understand: New Horizons in Reading Comprehension, and  the chapter in Adolescent Literacy endeavour to explain the notion of "understanding" - or what it means to make sense - and the role this plays in education.  Keene offers a short, “graduate school” answer: “Jamika, comprehension occurs when the reader constructs meaning in a way that combines his or her schemata with the author’s intended message, deriving a unique interpretation” (To Understand 3). But, she also presents a more structured theory which she calls the "Dimensions of Understanding" that goes beyond simple interpretations of comprehension (that is, retelling, answering questions, learning new vocabulary, scoring well on a test, or completing a project).

The Dimensions of Understanding:
"When we understand we...
...concentrate intensively.
...dwell in ideas.
...struggle for insight.
...manipulate our own thoughts to understand more completely.
...explore as renaissance learners.
...discuss, engaging in rigorous discourse about ideas.
...create models to help us remember.
...feel because our experience is enriched when we have emotional connections." ("The Essence of Understanding", 35). 
Keene also highlights the role of metacognition in this process of understanding and stresses the importance of helping students find their inner voice to help them think as they work to understand ideas. The inclusion of student voices throughout her writing (much as Kylene Beers and Janet Allen consistently do), helps bring the texts to life, providing examples of the theory in practice. She also makes the important connection between student engagement and understanding, as she began her chapter in Adolescent Literacy with an anecdote where teachers were observing highly engaged students. Keene asks, "In our classrooms, do we create the kind of conditions (topics we explore, physical environment, assignments, materials, discussions) that promote these dimensions? ("The Essence of Understanding", 34).

Fundamental to Keene's thinking is the idea that all kids have immense intellectual potential.  Keene challenges educators to shift their “thinking about the depth and breadth of children’s thinking” and “understand how children’s capacity for thinking is nearly limitless if we create the learning conditions to support it, if we provide a language to define and describe thinking” (To Understand 245).  The argument seems fairly simple:  be clear about learning goals, have high expectations, and feed children’s innate curiosity to encourage deep, reflective, valued, engaged learning that is intrinsically motivated and therefore rewarding. It’s the epitome of “lifelong learning”, which many of us strive to engage in our learners. Of course, answering this challenge is the difficult part.  Keene’s texts provides detailed ways to achieve these goals, using the words of learners and educators alike.

To Understand builds on previous works (such as the dimensions presented in the chapter in Adolescent Literacy) and seeks to provide models for professionals to build a program for developing understanding. In the end, four main ideas stand out, all of which are supported by the Ontario Curriculum and Growing Success:

1. Focus on what’s important (What matters most?).
2. Use research-based teaching and learning strategies.
3. Teach essential concepts over a long period of time.
4. Give students numerous opportunities to apply these concepts.

I strongly recommend Keene's book to further explore the idea of understanding, especially as it develops the dimensions further and places them in a context of high expectations and life-long learning.

“This is a book about what it means to understand.  It is about how we use books and language to discover, alongside children, the power of the human intellect.  It is about focusing on what matters most in literacy teaching rather than teaching a little of this, a little of that, until we’ve squandered every opportunity for children to explore ideas in depth.  It is about learning from intellectual mentors whose lives provide insight and direction for a nation of young scholars.  This book is about capturing the essence of understanding and bringing it to life in our own and our children’s hearts and minds.  This book is about what it means to understand.” (To Understand 19)


Keene, Ellin Oliver (2008). To Understand:  New Horizons in Reading Comprehension.  Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Keene, Ellin Oliver (2007). "The Essence of Understanding." Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.