Love of All Wisdom

Understanding understanding

by on Feb.02, 2014, under Daoism, Epistemology, Metaphilosophy

I have recently begun the exciting opportunity to teach a course in Indian philosophy in Boston University’s philosophy department. Thinking about and designing the course, I had the great opportunity to work with the small but excellent staff of BU’s Center for Excellence and Innovation in Teaching. They asked me: what’s your objective for the course? More specifically, what will your students be able to do when the course is done? They recommended that I pay particular attention to the verbs identifying these student abilities.

Such a question is easier to answer in skill-oriented courses – courses in Java programming or academic writing. There, the point of the course is all about something that students will be able to do. In a humanistic course, objectives are different, and often not easily specified. It’s not just that humanistic learning may have as much to do with personal transformation as with any acquired ability. It’s that even the abilities acquired are themselves difficult to define. In particular: one of the first verbs to come out of my mouth in response was “understand”. And one of the staff soon said in response, “we’d like to encourage you to avoid the U-word.”

They preferred other relevant and appropriate verbs like “apply” or “integrate”. But, I pushed back, what is wrong with “understand”? One responded: “Understanding is the easy part. A fifth-grader can do it.” And here, I realized, we were dealing with a bigger question. How does one understand understanding?

The theory behind their approach comes out of Bloom’s Taxonomy, an extraordinarily influential theoretical approach to teaching – one that classifies learning-related verbs in six different levels that build on each other, arranged in a hierarchy from lowest and simplest (know) to highest and most complex (evaluate). “Understanding” was at a low level here… or was it?

I got Bloom’s book out of the library, and found that “understand” per se is actually not one of the verbs that Bloom analyzes. What in fact takes that low level (level 2 out of 6) is “comprehend”. And that has to do with simply getting the literal meaning of a sentence: could you restate the sentence in your own words? Translate it?

“Comprehension” in that sense leaves out depth of understanding or interpretation. In this context “depth” means that one can see below the surface of the text and understand not merely what it says, but why it says what it says: both the logic of its internal reasoning and arguments, and the unspoken assumptions (or prejudices or “intuitions”) that it leaves in the background. These two reasons behind a text would each fit in different parts of Bloom’s Taxonomy: the logic would be “analysis” (level 4), the assumptions more like “integration” (level 5). To my mind this analysis and integration are themselves an essential part of true understanding.

Now so far this is mostly a semantic point about the meaning of the word “understand”: does it include merely low-level comprehension, or does it embrace a wider variety of concepts? And to that point the distinction isn’t that important; one can put the U-word to the side and focus on other words that are clearer. The issue is when those other words themselves turn out not to be so clear. For when it comes to philosophical texts, even straight-up comprehension can turn out to be strikingly difficult.

Consider the first sentence of the Daodejing: 道可道非常道, dao ke dao fei chang dao. This is most commonly translated into English as something like “The way that can be walked is not the true way.” The surface meaning of this translation alone is itself not entirely clear; it lends one to believe that a paraphrase might get something wrong, since it is not clear what the “true way” would be. And of course beneath that is the meaning of the Chinese words in the original, disputed at length over the generations. I recall a paper delivered at the SACP a few years ago that was entirely on how to translate this one sentence. A fifth-grader who truly comprehended this phrase – even a native Chinese speaker – would be nothing short of a prodigy.

When Bloom discusses comprehension, he ties it closely to the idea of translation: if one comprehends a sentence, that means could translate it into another language that one speaks fluently. I think that is true of comprehension, and even of understanding itself – but I think it also runs the risk of grossly underestimating the task of the translator. The translation that can occur at a low level is the sort that, in our age, can be automated: one comprehends a sentence at a low level if one can do to it what Google Translate does to it. But this hardly indicates comprehension. Google Translate renders 道可道非常道 as “Road to Road, very Avenue”. That’s a translation, all right, but it’s not a good translation. Good translations themselves require a deeper level of understanding, often the very deepest, and something always winds up lacking. (Thus we can find over 175 English translations of the Daodejing; the existing ones never seem to be good enough.)

It strikes me then that Bloom’s Taxonomy, like much of the instructional design literature, is designed for fields where most words mean something precise, commonsensical, or some combination of the two – chemistry, computer science, medicine. Humanities teaching frustrates our attempts to classify goals so easily.

This is not, of course, to say that attention to pedagogy would be of no benefit to the humanities. Far from it. The common model of lecturing to the class with few questions is one that allows little room for deep understanding; at best one comes to understand only one side, the lecturer’s side, and even in that one misses what the lecturer must leave out. Most readers recalling their humanities classes in college or university will likely recall some professors who had no idea how to teach. And indeed many still manage to finish graduate school having had no instruction, or even experience, in teaching. Most often, one simply mimics the teaching methods one’s own professors used, whether or not those were any good. One reason I’m in the business I’m in is I firmly believe most students would benefit greatly if their professors, in any field, paid more attention to teaching and made conscious changes to their teaching methods. The trick is that in the humanities, it is not obvious what those changes should be. But that’s to be expected, because part of the point of the humanities is to study that which is not obvious.

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15 Comments for this entry

  • elisa freschi

    “We ‘d like to encourage you to avoid the U-word” is such a hilarious answer! Do we understand each other? We cannot even entertain plain diplomatic relations with many countries, because our governments just do not understand each other’s language. I would rather say that an “essay (in the sense of attempt) in mutual understanding” is what is mostly needed in young adults’ education, much more than specific skills.

  • Ivy

    Nice entry and thanks for the introduction to Bloom!

    Perhaps a phrase you could use for your objective is “develop critical thought”. I spent a large part of my undergrad years studying political theory. While it doesn’t have any direct correlation with what I do now (spin doctor), it has equipped me with the ability to uh.. understand (perceive?) at a deeper level, questioning not just what is said but what is implied i.e. the circumstances that have led the author to make the statement, the author’s personality etc. I often find myself using these skills and level of perception to navigate the corporate world.

    ^ Now that I read what I wrote, it sounds really fluffy. Like you said, it’s hard to put into words. But spending my undergrad in humanities has definitely widened and deepened my perception of the world and tremendously changed my life.

    I’ve definitely had some professors who couldn’t teach well. I remember having a prof who would make us write a synopsis of a chapter of Aristole’s Nicomachean Ethics every week. If we didn’t interpret it in exactly her way, we’d get terrible grades!

    There were also some amazing professors at my school though. I’m trying to recall what made the professors who taught well great. At the lower undergrad levels, where there are hundreds of students per class (and hence no way to have discussion), they all had the ability to simplify complicated concepts using everyday examples.

    At the higher undergrad levels (where there were far fewer students per class), discussion became very important. But it was so much the content of the discussion but the flow of the discussion that made the class great. Good professors always knew how to push us by asking the “right” questions to improve the quality of our thinking. They were essentially teaching us how to think and challenging us to see the limitation of our awareness… kinda like what a Zen monk does with a koan.

    • Amod Lele

      Thanks, Ivy, and welcome.

      Critical thinking is a valuable skill learned in humanities classes – one that has marketable value as well as being worthy in its own right. Very often, when administrators and students ask what the payoff of a humanities education is, the first answer people stress is critical thinking – that and writing skills. That’s real and important. The problem is that then sometimes the value of a humanities education is reduced to critical thinking and writing – in which case you can just offer courses specifically about critical thinking and writing, rather than philosophy and history and literature. That’s why I wanted to have something in there specifically about the content, about Indian philosophy – something students would get from a class in Indian philosophy that they wouldn’t get from a class in English literature or Middle Eastern history. (Or, for that matter, in German philosophy.) That’s why understanding was important: I wanted them to understand this particular subject matter.

  • elisa freschi

    Hi Amod, a comment of mine is missing. Perhaps others, too?

    • Amod Lele

      Strange. I haven’t seen any comments from you on this post other than the one I’m replying to now.

    • Amod Lele

      Found it – it got caught in my spam filter, and is now back above. Sorry about that. I didn’t find Jim’s missing comment, though.

  • Carl

    FWIW, I’ve been toying with, “No method you can explain is always going to be applicable.”

    Interestingly, “method” comes from the Greek meta + odos (=Way), and it’s similar to Dao in that Dao means “(an explanation of) the (right) Way (to do something).” Medieval Buddhist texts in particular seem to use “dao” in the sense of “teach” or “speak” very often, and pretty much every word in classical Chinese has an implicit (right) in front of it. Daoists then are methodologists, except they think there’s no one method that can do everything, except for the Method of Nature (/Heaven).

    Then again, I can’t claim to “understand” Dao. :-)

    • Amod Lele

      Thanks, Carl. Laozi and Zhuangzi are still so frustrating to try to understand. Presumably on purpose…

      The Buddhists also make central use of the idea of “path”, with a word connoting a road – Sanskrit mārga or Pali magga. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to speak of the Noble Eightfold Method.

  • JimWilton

    I am also unable to post.

  • JimWilton

    Maybe it is longer posts that aren’t registering. I typed two paragraphs and there was some kind of wed error and the whole thing was erased.

  • JimWilton

    Let me try again.

    I was suggesting that you could answer your BU teaching theory bureaucrats based on Indian philosophy. You could say that your students will learn the three prajnas: to hear, to contemplate and to meditate. To hear is to listen with an open mind, without preconceptions or territorial bias based on prior views. To contemplate is to test a teaching or text against your experience using logic, comparison with other texts and intuitive understanding. To meditate is to internalize a text so that your understanding is not separate from the text — so that an expression of your understanding is the teaching itself.

    An analogy used is that hearing is like reading and understanding a recipe. Contemplation is like assembling the ingredients and learning to cook the meal. Meditation is enjoying the food.

    • Amod Lele

      Thanks, Jim. I agree with Andy below: in an academic class, it is probably not appropriate to meditate or internalize texts, especially given the strong disagreements the texts have with each other. Best to learn how to cook the two different meals without necessarily eating them, for the combination could lead to an upset stomach!

  • Andy


    Longtime reader, first-time poster.

    Thanks for this great post. I’ve been thinking about it all week, and it’s helpful to read some comments as well. I agree with JimWilton about the three prajnas: I think there can be a deepening nature to learning, and I think the Buddhist model is a compelling one. That said, I’m not sure if our goal in an academic context is for students to internalize the texts we study. At a monastery, sure. But I don’t teach my Asian Religions course with the hope that my 10th graders become Buddhist or Hindu. I hope they learn about these religions, and learn from them, and come to see both perennial human questions and distinctly Buddhist or Hindu ones, but my goal is not necessarily internalization. I feel like I stop more at the second level – that of contemplation, where they ideally have both an intimacy with the text and a critical perspective on it.

    Ivy’s comments brought up some thoughts as well. While I try to have a classroom that features discussions and questions, I do worry that I might be like the professor she mentioned: someone who tells my students what the right answers are, then asks them what the right answers are, then gives good grades to those who tell me what I told them. I hope this isn’t the case, but I also think this phenomenon can take on subtle forms. This is preliminary; I’ll have to explore this in more detail, perhaps on my own blog.

    I also think your comments in response to Ivy are important. Critical thinking and analytical writing skills are vital outcomes. But emphasizing only these can flatten the humanities – whether I’m reading Shakespeare or Spinoza or Shantideva, I’m only doing so to think better and write better. I hope there’s something more at stake – a conversation about what it means to be a human being, about what our responsibilities to others might be, about how different people at different times and in different places have tried to make sense of our human experience. Shantideva has something unique and irreducible to offer us – and, as you say, I think we first need to understand (comprehend, grasp, etc.) it before we can do something with it.

    • Amod Lele

      Thanks, Andy. I also worry about being someone who tells students what the right answers are. This was particularly apparent to me in the past couple weeks when I was teaching Śāntideva – I know this text pretty well and I’m pretty confident what’s going on here. What I tried to do was give a definitive answer only when students seemed to be fumbling and not sure what was going on. When they had a perspective of their own, I tried to pull back. Not sure whether this is the best approach, or whether I did it well.

      A related interesting problem: I have generally tended to avoid mentioning my blog in class partially because I’m worried that if students know my opinions they will try too hard to disagree with me. But students are smart and they will find it – especially since I’ve encouraged them to use the Internet in their research in this class. So I am now just trying to stress that disagreeing with me is acceptable, rather than hiding it… which then adds the interesting wrinkle that some of my students might be reading this very conversation!

      • Andy

        I appreciate what you’re saying about Shantideva and your familiarity with it shaping class dynamics. Sometimes I feel like I do a worse job facilitating discussion with a text that I know better. I think it’s because I end up answering a lot of clarifying questions (“what does X mean?” and the like) instead of re-directing student inquiry by pushing them to look more deeply at competing interpretations or possible inconsistencies in the text. As I answer too many of these questions, the dynamic can shift from a joint inquiry into a challenging text to a Q&A with someone who has read it a few more times than they have. My experience is that students are used to asking questions of their teachers, the supposed experts in the room; they’re less familiar with asking questions of (and listening to) each other, and it’s that kind of classroom environment that I’m ultimately trying to promote.
        To your other point: I think you’re right that this can be tricky territory. I, too, try to encourage students to set out their own viewpoints and to support them as they best see fit — whether or not they align with views (they might think) that I hold. My hope is that this intellectual work can contribute, in some small way, to their sense of who they are as human beings and citizens. Learning that I have viewpoints – and learning what those views are – may be one part of this process. But seeking to mimic and repeat them (which I think might be the bigger concern), especially in the search of a higher grade – that seems like something to work against.

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