Back in school, in French classes, we used to be given ‘comprehension tests’ for our homework. Doubtless the same exercises are used the world over, though not necessarily by that name. ‘Comprehension’ involved reading a passage written in French, after which you would be expected to answer questions based upon what you had read and understood. Many hated ‘comprehension’, and there would be an audible groan from the class as the teacher set the task.

I loved it. It was, as far as homework was concerned, a ‘freebie’. It had not taken long to work out that the answer was almost entirely contained within the question. As long as you had the basic vocabulary to understand the passage itself, it needed only the most rudimentary understanding of the way that particular language worked to be able to regurgitate the question itself as an answer with the odd detail from the passage thrown in.

There was no need for really understanding though, not at all.  The clues were all there. Once you had worked out how to re-present the question, the answers wrote themselves. It always seemed a little pointless to me, as a good mark was based more on rephrasing something you were being told, rather than actually understanding French. But as I liked French and was pretty good at it, I had usually finished the comprehension homework before the class was dismissed and could look forward to both a good mark and a free evening.

We had comprehension tests in English classes too. Given that we already understood the language and how it worked, the requirements were a little bit different and not quite so easy to whizz through. The questions would not simply ask you to restate what you had read, they required you to think about it instead, drawing unwritten conclusions and interpretations. Quite often, there could be no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer as the response had to be subjective. Even so, the information from which your conclusions would be drawn was always included in the text, in obvious or subtle form.

These ‘comprehension tests’ were never, to my mind, a real measure of understanding, but were rather testing  knowledge.  All it needed was that you paid attention as you were reading and the answers were never far to seek. A good grade could be gained by simple regurgitation in French, and basic extrapolation in English.

During the recent Solstice of the Moon workshop, Running Elk taught us much about the ancient landscape and its people and every so often he would laughingly refer to the group having ‘done its homework’.  None was set, but at any workshop there is an expectation that those who attend will absorb what is being shared…and hopefully, go away and work with it, thinking it through and drawing their own conclusions. It is in this way that we can all learn from each other as we share ideas and possibilities.

With something as ancient as stone circles and as mysterious as the minds of those who built them, there are seldom definitive answers to any question, but there are a few incontrovertible facts known about both the sites and their builders, which, with a little attention, would offer a smattering of knowledge.

As with the French ‘comprehension’, you could just rephrase and re-present those facts. Attention… whether by observing, reading or listening… is the first requirement for learning anything, but the acquisition of knowledge alone does not bring understanding.  Before you can truly begin to comprehend the meaning of that knowledge, you have to think it through, work with it, interpret the bald facts and see where thought may lead. That is the second step on the three-fold path to understanding.

Once you have formed that interpretation or drawn your conclusion, it must be tested through application. Any theory must work in practice… and even in the abstract learning of everyday life, it is only when we apply what we know to our own lives that we see the true depth of what we know. It is  through experience that we begin to understand.

With the ancient places there are a few known facts and very many theories. Sometimes even the ‘facts’ are proved to have been wrong as new knowledge is added to the store. Some theories are plausible, some less so, but all must ‘work’ with the sites themselves to be given any hope of credence. Within our own lives, there are things we know… and many hopes, dreams and possibilities. Until we carry them into our days…apply them, test and live them…they cannot become what they must become before understanding can be born.

Within the Silent Eye we encourage our Companions to accept nothing without question. On the spiritual path there are seldom definitive answers… by its very nature, those answers must be found by each one of us. Each seeker must take the knowledge they glean through honed attention, interpret and work with it, apply and test it within their own lives until they themselves reach understanding. When we do so, knowledge can grow into more than understanding… it becomes a living truth.

8 thoughts on “Comprehension

  1. Beautifully stated. Learning and understanding are two different things. Comprehension, at it’s highest level, asks more questions. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know. I love reading your insights, Sue.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well said, Jennie. I think “The more we know, the more we know we don’t know” has been said so many times in so many different ways that it almost feels cloying now — a platitude — causing people to miss the truth of it, which is as relevant and applicable as the first day this was uttered by whomever uttered it.

      The greatest thinkers — inventors, scientists, philosophers, sociologists, world changers — have never viewed comprehension as a destination where one has mastered all there is to know about a thing. They’ve gotten past that fallacy to the deeper understanding where there is always one more question. As a mentor and educator, a well thought out extension question or “I wonder …” has always been a clearer marker of true comprehension than any answer, however thorough.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Thanks, Jennie and Erik. I find that incredibly exciting…that we never stop learning. The more we pay attention and try to learn, the wider the vista that opens up for us to explore 🙂 As soon as you decide you have learned, you close the doors on new possibilities.

      Liked by 3 people

    1. Itis very like a puzzle 🙂 I go with the idea that if a theory actually fits all the evidence, it probably isn’t far wrong. The trouble comes when we try and manipulate the evidence to fit the theory.


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