Why is Understanding important?

Understanding is critical to solving the problems in The Skills Gap and changing education because it is the mastery learning skill and it is not possible to achieve understanding consistently in our current education system!

Understanding is achieved by experiencing something first-hand and this means that the teaching and assessment process is complex and not manageable in the way we do things now.

Vivagogy understands Understanding! We have designed and are building a complex online system for capturing the data for all learning formal and informal which means for the first time we can deliver personalised experiential learning, assess and managing it. It is a system which can deliver Understanding.


Skills are the proficiencies developed through training, or experience. A skill is a thing you can do. It’s the basis of “I can do” statements and it is demonstrated and assessed easily in formal learning

There is a fine line between skills and abilities. Abilities are the qualities of “being able to do” something. The differentiator is whether the thing in question was learned or innate. If a student has an innate skill it is called natural ability.


Knowledge is information acquired. Knowledge is theoretical but skills are more practical. Knowledge is knowing about something without necessarily being able to do it. It is the area that has most radically changed with internet usage which puts knowledge in the hands of everyone although they may not know how to make use of this knowledge.

Knowledge is a measure of the ability to perform fast, reliable, retrieval of facts and information. It used to be totally the teacher’s domain or found in books but due to technology it is now anyone’s and therefore student’s attitudes have changed. Teachers roles have also changed as they are no longer the font of knowledge.

Keywords in the measurement of knowledge include: Know that, can tell you that,


Understanding is the highest level of the three competencies and requires both Skills and Knowledge. It is sometimes referred to as high-level thinking.

Understanding requires an insight where not only the concept but its parallel practical applications make perfect sense. One can have knowledge and skills without having understanding.

Understanding requires the contemplation of intention as well as the method of application and the alternatives including its non-application. It requires a much deeper insight.

Understanding is often acquired without teaching and can be born of experience, or alternative thinking styles and is the result therefore of experiential learning. S+K+E (experience) =U or Understanding. It is often acquired through what is called “informal learning” although “informal learning” can be structured into a formal learning environment. Experience is usually the function of a longer timescale and informal learning, even subconscious learning.

Unlike skills and knowledge, understanding can only exist in a context. Contextualised learning is, therefore, essential in the development of true understanding. This makes it the most difficult competence to measure accurately.

Many of the so-called “21c skills” and “Life Skills” are actually understanding competencies.

A search for understanding is a personal thing. It is what motivates everyone to learn and acquire skills and knowledge for personal gratification – the desire to understand things.

What does this mean?

We can begin to see that whilst understanding is often talked about in formal education it is rarely formally taught or assessed.

It is difficult to teach in a formal system because it depends upon:

1. The understanding of the teacher to be able to produce the right experiential experience. So, teachers with an insufficient understanding of the subject they’re teaching are unlikely to be able to effectively and teach understanding. For example, a business studies teacher may know all the theory of marketing but unless he has actually performed the skills in a real business environment he will not be able to impart true understanding, though he/she can impart knowledge and skills.

2. For the same reason, it is almost impossible to use experiential learning content because that also depends on the understanding of the teacher as the materials need to be contextual and flexible. The very essence of building understanding is to make and learn from mistakes and these are not always easy to spot or diagnose if you have not experienced the situation in a real life context.

3. It requires an acceptance that failure is a vital part of learning, not something we should be criticised for.

4. Lastly, it is very difficult to assess quantitatively or objectively and as formal education depends on its funding and reason to be, on measurement, something that cannot easily be measured is not likely to be included within its remit.

We could interestingly contemplate here how teachers might be taught understanding because that is the key to being able to teach it!

If they have a lot of life skills and real-life contextual experience of their subject it will help so this could be effectively dealt with by making the commercial context part of the teacher training experience.

It could also be supported by including the IP and input of commercial organisations who can enrich the syllabus content by contextualising it with their normal everyday activities.

So the student car mechanic can work on a customer’s car in the technical college and build and understanding of the real job pressure of working to a schedule, being in contact with a customer and being profit aware. This in turn, produces the very same skills that the employer is looking for and which are lacking in the candidates who are only taught the skills and knowledge!

So, as understanding is not generally taught in formal education it is acquired haphazardly and accident in some cases, mostly through informal learning experiences.

It is the essential competence that is needed in employment but when you start a job you are not expected to have it, though those who do have it are highly sought after.

Is supposed to be the stuff of training mentoring and performance management but as these are themselves usually formal it is not usually acquired in this way either.

You seem to have to wait to make enough mistakes, somehow find it on the internet, or be lucky enough to meet people who can act as informal examples for you.

This takes time and is very inefficient, but there is another way.

What are we doing?

By restructuring our formal learning to be more informal we can produce and an environment where it could be learned as a skill at an earlier age.

Would this not save an awful lot of time and pain. Would it not make everybody’s lives happier and easier?

Would employers not prefer to understand how to recruit better people but also to train their existing employees better?

A sea change is needed to bring this about but people are looking for a new way.

However, the reconstruction of a new style of learning and teaching is a difficult thing to bring about. There are signs in odd pockets around the world that some have ‘seen the light’ and are experimenting with alternative views.

Leerpark in Holland is a technical college who achieved extraordinary results by bringing employers into the college and using real content and experiential learning. The result is a system which makes them the preferred supplier to local employers and has achieved an employment rate from their courses of 98% and a dropout rate from post 16 dropouts of less than 3%, both world leading figures.

Finland is now debating dropping core subjects in favour of skills based experiential learning where students ‘find out’ by exploring holistic learning objects which deal with many core subjects at one time. By the way, this will also speed up learning because the same skill will not have to be taught in different core subjects!

So there is a change in the air and so there should be as the methods have not changed for nearly 300 years.

Which other sphere of our lives could we say that of?

There are two major difficulties in all this, however.

Firstly, we need a vastly different and more complex system for capturing the data for all this personalised learning, assessing and managing it.

Lastly, we need to understand it, is that not ironic?

We need to understand, understanding before we can understand how to make easy to acquire.

These are the tasks that our small team of forward-thinking learning and software experts has set ourselves and we are able to say confidently that we understand how to do this!

  • We are now deep into the modelling of a knowledge ecosystem which will
  • Connect the stakeholders in the new process of education 3.0
  • Allow personalised learning paths
  • Tracking and measurement of formal and informal learning, skills, knowledge and understanding
  • Co-operative learning
  • Create relationships between students, teachers, and employers
  • Support life-long learning
  • Enable a new style of training and performance management


Chris Heron and Steve Cushing