What it means to Understand

What do we mean when we say ‘I understand’ – in a relationship, in business, in academics, in the study of Vedanta?

In their book, Understanding by Design (1998), Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe discuss “Six Facets of Understanding.” They came up with these six facets of understanding to help instructional designers to check if students have a deep understanding of the idea or concept that is being taught. The authors provide a framework that systematically addresses the six levels of understanding. I believe this is the best explanation of what it means to understand something.

Wiggins and McTighe suggest that when a person truly understands something, they can do six things; they can explain it, they can interpret it, they can apply it, they have perspective, they can empathise and finally they have self-knowledge.

Each of the six facets demonstrates a certain level or degree of understanding. One can also look at the six facets as different ways of demonstrating understanding.

Most of us who aim to understand something, simply browse and read about it, may even take notes. Some even discuss it or reflect on it. Memorise it. Most of the ‘understanding’ endeavours end there. Is this truly enough to develop a deeper and mature understanding?

A complete and mature understanding ideally involves the full development of all six kinds of understanding. Let’s look at each in some more detail:

Wiggins & Tighe’s Six Facets of Understanding

1. Explain:

At this first level, you can provide well-articulated explanations or theories to expand upon events, actions, and ideas. You are able to provide thorough and justifiable accounts of phenomena, facts, and data.

2. Interpret

At this level, you can identify meaning in what you have learned through interpretations, narratives, and translations. You are able to relate it to your life and things happening around you. You are able to tell meaningful stories, offer apt translations, provide a revealing historical or personal dimension to ideas and events. Furthermore, you can make it personal or accessible through images, anecdotes, analogies, and models.

3. Apply

At this level, you are able to demonstrate the ability to effectively adapt what you have learned by using the knowledge in new situations and contexts. You are able to take what you know and use it in everyday life.

4. Have perspective

At this level, you can identify a variety of critical and insightful points of view. You are able to answer questions like ‘Of what value is this idea?’, ‘ How important is this idea?’, ‘What does this idea enable or empower us to do/achieve/overcome?’. You are now able to see and hear viewpoints through critical eyes and ears and understand something from more than your own perspective. You are also able to see the big picture.

5. Empathize

At this level, you demonstrate an ability to get inside another person’s feelings. You are able to see the world from different viewpoints. This allows you to also appreciate the diversity in thoughts and feeling across the world. You are able to find value in what others might find odd, alien, or implausible. You can perceive sensitively on the basis of prior indirect experience.

6. Have self-knowledge

At this final level, you are able to demonstrate wisdom in knowing how your own personal style, prejudices, projections, and habits of mind, both shape and impede your own understanding. You are aware of what you do not understand and why understanding is so hard. You are able to see the boundaries to your own understanding and also that of others. You are able to see the difference between your own perspective and that of others. All understanding ultimately culminates into self-knowledge. One exhibits true integrity and is able to and willing to act on basis of what one understands.

This, I believe, is what it means to truly understand- to rise through all the six facets of understanding. You can clearly see that it is not an easy task, that it’s a process and it may take years of focus, study and practice to intimately get it.

Be it any topic contained within the vast libraries of neuroscience, Vedanta, psychology, mathematics, language and so on. We cannot learn everything; even superficially. Life is short. Think about what matters most to you, that you must deeply understand in this lifetime and then raise your understanding through this. This is helpful even to parents who want to build a good understanding of concepts and values in their young ones.

Understanding goes deeper than data, information, or even gathered wisdom. It is where mankind’s greatest potential and glory come from. And it is also life’s greatest gift. That’s why Leonardo Da Vinci said, ‘The noblest pleasure is the joy of Understanding.’

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