Thoughts on the needs associated with understanding something

Despite them being the subject I’ve actually studied the least; education, teaching and learning remains three of my favorite (interconnected) subjects to think about. Of course it would be strange if I didn’t think about those things almost on a daily basis. Looking at my current situation and life so far I have spent all of my life within some institution which has sought actively to instill me with knowledge and morality and as such it is almost hard to separate my own person from my thoughts on those institutions and the process of learning itself.

The thought that has bugged me today has simply been how we at different stages in studying something have different needs with regards to how we approach them, essentially how we need obtain a sense of understanding something. Essentially understanding something, as I see it stems from being able to work with a set of related concepts and models in a qualitative way — to within a certain framework be able to answer a question in a way that in the given setting is socially acceptable in some way. In this I incorporate the admittedly pretty nonsensical way of looking at the self as a society of one which is just supposed to reflect that my own sense of understanding is something that develops from essentially talking to myself, providing a narrative that when spoken back to myself makes sense. I don’t need a real person to agree with me to feel I understand something but I need to feel like I could explain it to one if I had to. To imagine a dialogue through the monologue.

And this idea that understanding arises from a form of internal dialogue shapes what I need to feel like I understand something because as I grow I become able to ask myself more questions challenging my own ability to form an appropriate narrative. For example, lately I’ve been trying to quantify, on my own, the length of the day as it relates to the orbit of the earth around the sun. I feel that I definitely understand why the length of the day varies over the course of the year as the direction of the earths tilt relative to the sun varies. By simply imaging a model of the earth with various circles corresponding to latitudes and the shadow the sun casts on the earth, dividing it in half,  as it would in mid summer and mid winter I definitely feel like I have understood the essence of the phenomenon. I feel like I could manage explaining the idea to someone who was simply asking that one question without much follow up. However, it still gnaws in my soul somehow that I can’t quantify the rate of change of the length of the day over. Essentially what part of the year is the change in the length of the day the greatest?

I think why I feel like asking that question, or thinking that it’s an important question, is that I ought to be able to answer it and therein lies what I think is a core drive in seeking understanding. You have to be confident that you can understand it. If you don’t, then you will not try. That is why instilling intellectual confidence in a student is so important and probably  is what we fail in doing too often.


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