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    Learning Is Just the First Step to Understanding

    As a college professor for many decades, I am always amazed at how so many students pass exams while having so little understanding. If I taught math, it would probably be different, because the task in math is to solve problems, which you can't do if you don't understand how to construct and solve appropriate equations. But for most other subjects, it is amazing how much students can learn with so little understanding.

    This problem also exists in the real world outside of academia. Opinions masquerade as fact. “Facts” are often asserted without evidence-based reasoning. Facts are presented out of a context that would otherwise promote understanding.

    In school matters, teachers don’t seem to emphasize the importance of evidence and reasoning. Educational knowledge and skills standards used by all the states focus on conclusions, with little regard for how such conclusions are justified. Conclusions are presented to be memorized. Testing rarely focuses on the reasoning that constructed the conclusions.

    In the k-12 teaching of history, for example, students may not learn the right lessons about our government. Numerous polls uniformly have revealed that the typical high school graduate has very little understanding about U.S. history. School history textbooks are roundly criticized for inaccuracy, bias, and omissions, especially omissions of context. I have verified this in conversations with my grandchildren. The young people I talk to know nothing about explanations for the form of our government in the Federalist Papers or the reasons for many of the events that happened in U.S. history. Students have little appreciation for how creative the ideas in the Constitution were at the time and how they have had at least some impact everywhere in the world. They may have very little understanding about why WWII was so important.

    In the teaching of biology, evolution is presented as a theory widely accepted by scientists, but with much less emphasis on why they believe it. It seems like too much trouble to explore the scientific observations over the centuries that lead to an inescapable conclusion that life forms do evolve. Why they evolve was the hallmark of Darwin’s work, but somehow this tends to get lost in the conclusion that they evolve or assertions that the theory should not be believed.

    In the teaching of neuroscience, with which I am most familiar, students memorize what neurons are, how they generate electricity, and communicate with each other, with much less attention to what this all means in a larger sense of mental health and meaningful living. For example, students may conclude that humanity resides in a late-term fetus without knowing why such a claim can be made on neuroscience grounds. Students may memorize which parts of the brain light up in a brain scan under different conditions without the slightest idea of how misleading and uninformative such information may actually be.

    In science in particular, the “why” and “how” are often more important than the “what.” I remember as a graduate student that my major professor rejected my research findings until I could find an explanation for the results. It is not enough just to know.

    The larger point, of the need to understand the factoids you are learning, applies in all aspects in life: school, workplace training, and relationships with people of different backgrounds. In everything we read or hear, we should get in the habit of asking ourselves certain questions:
    ·       Do I understand what this means?
    ·       What are the limitations of this information? Where could be wrong or incomplete?
    ·       How much can I learn from it, not just of it?
    ·       What are the implications of this information?
    ·       To what good purpose can I put this information?

    Understanding is much more demanding and valuable than just knowing. I might add as the "Memory Medic" that this perspective on learning makes it easier to remember what you learn. The best way to remember factoids is the thinking required to understand them.

    "Memory Medic" has four books on improving learning and memory:

    • For parents and teachers: The Learning Skills Cycle.
    • For students: Better Grades, Less Effort
    • For everyone's routine living: Memory Power 101
    • For seniors: Improve Your Memory for a Healthy Brain. Memory Is the Canary in Your Brain's Coal Mine

    For details and reviews, see Memory Medic's web site: WRKlemm.com

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