Jun 24, 2017

Learning, understanding, and the illusion of explanatory depth

"Some people will never learn anything, for this reason, because they understand everything too soon"

Alexander Pope

There's an important distinction between performance and learning; performance is a behavior that is directly observable while learning is not, learning must be inferred from performance (see previous post). Furthermore, Bjork states that learning is:

[C]onceived of as relatively permanent changes in cognitive, perceptual, and motor representations that will support long-term retention and transfer of knowledge and skills to the post-training contexts that are the target of training...

Bjork, R., Chapter 14, Ericsson, K. A. (2009). Development of professional expertise toward measurement of expert performance and design of optimal learning environments. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

At no point does the definition of learning refer to the understanding of what it is to be learned. And understanding doesn't necessarily imply that learning has occurred. Some of the major experiments about learning and behavior were performed by behaviorists, one of the most prominent pioneers of the field was B.F. Skinner. Using rats and pigeons he demonstrated that animals can learn with the help of rewards and punishment. This brings me to the next point: Learning can happen without understanding, and understanding can happen without learning (see competence without comprehension). Also, as far as I'm concerned, comprehension and understanding are synonymous.

Although learning and understanding are both unobservable mental processes, they may complement each other, and are also distinct from each other. Lee Shulman says the following of understanding:

When I profess my understanding, I am urged by my teachers to use critical reasoning, to demand evidence, and to make my arguments clear—to always ask, How do you really know? Skepticism, questioning, the demand for proof are at the heart of professing one's understanding.

Lee S Shulman, Taking learning seriously, Change. New Rochelle: Jul/Aug 1999.Vol.31, Iss. 4; pg. 11

What Shulman is referring to in this excerpt is the use of explanations to express our understanding. The are different kinds of explanations, they may be incomplete, have limitations, range from useful to useless, and sometimes may even mislead us. On the relationship between explanation, understanding, mental models, and theories Keil writes:

Explanations are related to theories; but a focus on explanations brings different issues and bodies of research to the foreground (e.g., Brem & Rips 2000). One difference concerns the transactional nature of explanations. Explanations are often between individuals and reflect an attempt to communicate an understanding. Even within one mind, explanations occur in a manner different from intuitive theories. One can attempt to explain an event to oneself, as sometimes is revealed when people are heard saying to themselves out loud how something works. Even young children playing alone can be observed to explain things to themselves as a verbal strategy to help solve a task (Berk 1994). Explanations create trajectories. Recipients of explanations, if the explanations are at all successful, are expanding their understanding in real time. The transactive process also frequently implies conceptual change. Theories can undergo conceptual change (see, e.g., Carey 1985), but they do not need to and can be highly stable over extended periods, especially when very successful.

Explanations may highlight incompleteness. An explainer will often encounter gaps in understanding that may remain largely invisible when in the form of intuitive theories. Thus, the process of trying to explain explicitly a system to another, or even to oneself, often brings the incompleteness of one’s understanding into much harsher relief (Keil et al. 2004).

Explanations contrast with mental models as well, which can range from formal representations of logical patterns (Johnson-Laird 1983) to image-like representations of the workings of a system (Gentner & Stevens 1983). Mental models are readouts of relations from a mental array and often are understood in spatial terms. Explanations normally are not seen as mental blueprints or plans that are then read off. They include the interpretations of such plans or blueprints.

Explanations therefore contrast with both intuitive theories and models because of their transactional component, their role in expanding knowledge, and their interpretative role. They are also different from simple, procedural knowledge. Knowing how to operate an automated teller machine or make an international phone call might not entail having any understanding of how either system works. Even a seemingly simple act such as exchanging money at an airport may carry with it no explanatory understanding of how relative currency values are determined. The study of explanations offers insights not obvious from other points of view. Explanations view people less as autodidacts and more as social, interacting agents (Harris 2002).

Keil also explains how the illusion of explanatory depth (IOED) can mislead us to have a false sense of understanding:

The pursuit of explanations and the desire to offer them are driven by our intuitions concerning the quality of explanations we already have. In trying to gain an explanatory understanding of a system, one stops upon reaching a “working understanding.” People often claim to have rushes of insight or flashes of understanding, yet these intuitions often may not be accurate. People do have strong senses of making cognitive advances in understanding, ranging from a visceral “rush” of understanding (Gopnik 1998) to being in a cognitive “flow” (Cziksent-mihalyi 1990). The “aha” sense has been discussed ever since Archimedes was described as euphorically shouting, “Eureka!” To some extent, these intuitions must be tracking real progress in understanding; but recent evidence also suggests that these intuitions are only crude indicators that can mislead, sometimes quite dramatically.


There is a consistent strong IOED, with later ratings being substantially lower than earlier ones (Rozenblit & Keil 2002). This drop in ratings, however, does not occur for self-assessments of other kinds of knowledge such as facts (e.g., capitals of countries), procedures (e.g., how to make an international phone call), or narratives (e.g., plots of familiar movies). The IOED is therefore not merely another case of a general overconfidence effect (e.g., Krueger & Dunning 1999, Yates et al. 1997). There is something about partial explanatory understanding that provides particularly compelling senses of knowing more than one really does.

[...] Finally, we may confuse our ability to represent or to know fully an explanation in our heads with the ability to fuse more fragmentary understandings with situational cues that fill out critical explanatory detail when an object is directly in front of us in real time and is available for inspection (Clark 1997).

[...] People also seem to use misleading heuristics to assess how well they understand a system. Most notably, if they can see or easily visualize several components of a system, they are more convinced they know how it works. Thus, the more easily visible are parts in a system, relative to hidden ones, the stronger the IOED (Rozenblit & Keil 2002).

There are important concepts that are easily confused, but they need to be untangled. In a previous post I explored the distinction between learning and performance, in this one I explored the distinction between learning and understanding. Evidence of understanding is not the same as evidence of learning and evidence of learning is not evidence of understanding. Explaining our understanding is an important aspect of how we assess what we know, but explanations are not created equal and may even mislead us.

I'd like to repeat a salient quote from Daniel Dennett which I've already included in the post competence without comprehension, it reminds me of the importance of understanding:

One of the big themes in my book is how up until recently, the world and nature were governed by competence without comprehension. Serious comprehension of anything is very recent, only millennia old, not even a million years old. But we’re now on the verge of moving into the age of post-intelligent design and we don’t bother comprehending any more. That’s one of the most threatening thoughts to me. Because for better or for worse, I put comprehension as one of my highest ideals. I want to understand everything. I want people to understand things. I love understanding things. I love explaining things to myself and to others. We’ve always had plenty of people who, for good reason, said, “Oh, don’t bother explaining to me how the car engine works, I don’t care. I just push the ignition and off I go.” What happens when we take that attitude towards everything?

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1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Daniel Dennett, Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking.

Valid criticism is doing you a favor. - Carl Sagan