To put a disclaimer at the very beginning, this line of thinking did not come to me till recent past. Also, this blog post is more exploratory than any conclusion I may have reached.
Growing up in India with language of instruction being English, we all were by default bi-lingual. When it came to academics parents and teachers always told us don’t just learn things by-heart or mug-up but understand and read it. That’s a great idea and wonderful concept but what did they really mean?.
So, what does it mean to understand some concept? at the time when I was studying if I can explain what I am reading in Kannada (my mother tongue) then I have understood. But that only meant translating doesn’t it?.
I remember reading a quote from Dr. Richard Feynman that “if you cannot explain to the person sitting next to you in a bar as to what you do for living, then you do not know what you are doing for living”. That’s wonderful, if I can claim I understood it, I would say “I should be able to explain to a random person with no background in my field as to what I do for a living” .
Another school of thought that came from my daughters school is from her school Principal, her quote “I want my students to explain what they are doing and why they are doing it in their own words, if that is done then the teachers work is done”. This is wonderful too.
One can argue that concept of understanding differs from subject to subject, for example mathematics at the basic level of addition, subtractions and multiplications is all about repetition and more repetition at higher level with fractions and all one can get some chance of explaining what they are trying to accomplish. Social studies in my extensive thought, one can only learn by by-heart for the level of understanding of the implications of whatever we study will change as we grow older, so at a young age by-heart so that when you get older you can recall and amuse yourself or deepen your understanding.
Science is probably the only one which one can even make an attempt to understand and digest what we read and/or studied. One can understand the studied concept by setting up simple experiments, may be at home or collectively at school.
In the end it boils down to, how would you know someone has understood what they have claimed to have studied :).