Quantity of knowledge is not synonymous with its quality. We can be rich in knowledge but poor in sense. Understanding is what makes sense of otherwise disparate items of information. It is a worthwhile goal in that it can reduce a chaotic mental world to a more predictable and satisfying state. It also facilitates further learning and recall of knowledge and enables responses, particularly in novel situations, to be flexible and appropriate. At a time when information is cheap and access to it is easy, understanding is what makes it meaningful, manageable and potentially valuable. Understanding is often acknowledged to be an aim of education but learning encom-
passes a variety of ends and increasing understanding is only one of them. For instance, entry into higher education in pursuit of particular careers is often paramount for both students and their teachers. At the same time, overloaded syllabuses and teaching schemes allow little time to support developing understandings. In such circumstances, understanding can be seen as a luxury. At its worst, this loses sight of education as a maker of sound thinkers able to develop understandings and cope successfully as the world changes (Eisner, 1993). An education which offers only unconnected bits of information, facts, is limited. It risks producing an inability to respond flexibly, think critically or creatively, and may produce habits of mind that value quantity more than the quality of knowledge. This is not to say that everything has to be understood: some things may legitimately be memorized. Nor does it mean that an understanding must or always can be comprehensive or has to be the same as another’s understanding. There are, however, certain ideas that are worth understanding, even if they are rejected after consideration. And there is the prospect of reducing the potentially terrifying chaos of Laurie Lee’s childhood world to a manageable, meaningful environment. Even the rejection of an understanding can be worthwhile and may lead to an alternative, better understanding. Is this a luxury? To say it is not may prompt some to complain that it is to impose the values of one group on another. But if the alternative is simply to
accumulate unrelated facts which, in a decade or two, will be irrelevant, then there seems little point to it. On the other hand, an offer of an improved capacity to make sense of events, to construct understandings which enable flexibility in thought and action and reduce the risk of exploitation seems worthwhile. Nothing can force an act of understanding, only the learner has control of the mental
processes that are needed and probably does not even have a conscious control of all of them. Support for understanding comprises several courses of action, none necessarily sufficient by itself. What such support can do is provide favourable conditions and adjust those conditions as the process progresses. Favourable conditions are those which regulate the learning situation to make produc-
tive mental engagement more likely. This can be through activities intended to focus attention and foster relevant inference-making. For instance, instructional load may be controlled so that mental capacities are not overwhelmed and analogies provided to develop understanding through better known parallels. At the same time, learners are different. Some strategies may be used fairly widely while others depend on the age, experience, preference and habits of the learner. This is recognized in, for instance, the distinction that has been made between pedagogy and androgogy. Pedagogy refers to the form of teaching appropriate for young learners while androgogy is what is appropriate for mature learners. Of course, such a division cannot be complete or exact; there is inevitably some overlap. A teacher is not the only one who can regulate the learning situation. Learners often
develop metacognitive skills that help them monitor and control their learning. Some of these may be used without conscious thought, others are deployed deliberately. Selfregulation which has developed from experience may be improved by tuning existing strategies and adding others, particularly with learners who have some awareness of their own thinking processes and can deploy these strategies themselves. This is when learning and practising in the contexts where such strategies would naturally be used may increase the likelihood that they will be used elsewhere. Given effective strategies for supporting cognition, learners must know what counts.