Bartlett (1932) described understanding as a mental attempt to connect something that is given with something other than itself. For Paul (1944), it was when the mind ‘selects, pieces and patterns the relevant observed facts together, rejecting the irrelevant, until it has sewn together a logical and rational quilt of knowledge’. Similarly, Nickerson (1985) sees understanding as ‘the connecting of facts, the relating of newly acquired information to what is already known, the weaving of bits of knowledge into an integrated and cohesive whole’. This relating or linking of thoughts, ideas and information to form a coherent whole is an important feature of understanding, particularly evident in formal education (Hounsell, 1984). If it was knitting, the pattern would say K2tog (knit two stitches together to make one). The act of knitting can parallel the process of understanding and the garment it produces is like the mental product that results. In this way, it is a productive activity (Moseley et al., 2005). To the extent that the understanding is new to the learner, it is also a creative activity with a small c. If the understanding is also widely valued and new to the world, it could be said to be a creative activity with a big C (Richards, 1993; Gardner, 1993; Boden, 1996). While the status of these understandings may be different in the eyes of the word, the fundamental mental processes involved are likely to be the same. But, given that children and young students generally lack the knowledge base of an expert, big C creativity is likely to be uncommon. As the term understanding is commonly used, some mental garments merit it more
than others. The one or two idle stitches that connect the shape of a cloud on a sunny day with your recollection of the shape of an elephant do not usually qualify. On the other hand, mentally grasping the cause of an event often does (Halford, 1993). Piaget (1978) felt that only mental structures which answer the question ‘why’ deserve to be called understanding. For example, if you can explain with some plausibility why Tom and Jerry are always battling it out, then you could be said to have some understanding
of their natures, their relationship and the cat and mouse condition. If you can explain similarly why the shape of a car affects its fuel consumption, then you probably have some understanding of what engineers would call streamlining. These understandings explain the cause of events and are potentially very useful, flexible kinds of knowledge because they can be applied in different situations. Nevertheless, they rest on a descriptive understanding of the situation: someone watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon needs to grasp the story and keep it updated as it progresses (Buck, 2001). Similarly, it helps if someone has a mental ‘picture’ (representation) of the car and the air flow around it. Johnson-Laird’s and Halford’s view is that to understand something is to have a working model of it in your mind (Johnson-Laird, 1985; Halford, 1993). Constructing a mental model of a situation and articulating it allow us to anticipate and predict what will happen. This all seems to put a lot of emphasis on conscious thought and its efforts to
construct mental models of the world but mulling things over may not always be essential for constructing an understanding. The understanding that a carpenter has of wood, a sculptor of clay, and a mother of her baby may not have been achieved by conscious reflection. In unconscious or implicit learning, the learner is not usually aware of the detection of contingencies and covariations and the making of connections. For instance, in what is commonly referred to as intuition, a complex situation may be processed unconsciously but the nature of the processing often remains inaccessible to conscious thought (Berry and Dienes, 1993). Claxton (1997) argues that Western education has long neglected unconscious mental processes. The ‘undermind’, as he calls it, is often able to deal with intricate, ill-defined situations but needs time to do so before it offers its products to the conscious mind. We are all familiar with those occasions when we put aside an obstinate problem and a solution emerges later. But even when we bring our conscious thought to bear on a situation, unconscious operations – such as pattern analysis – support it (Nelson, 1986). Furthermore, Sierpinska (1994) argues that knitting ideas together may not apply to all acts of understanding or to all uses of the word. She describes mental ‘order and harmony’ as the central criterion and this might be achieved in a holistic, intuitive grasp of the situation. This may also be found in Dilthey’s view of understanding as an empathetic response to a situation. He contended that you cannot understand what you have not experienced (Plantinga, 1980). Again, existentialists argue that understanding is not exclusively an intellectual effort (Kerdeman, 1998) or, as Reid has pointed out, not always one which deals in sentence-like truths (Reid, 1986).