Dr. Judith M. Newman



Retrospective Understanding

[ Journal Entry ]

I love Frank Conroy’s writing—his wonderfully detailed critical incidents. The point of his three stories is that understanding is often a retrospective enterprise; lots of events/experiences make sense only some time later, when life and circumstances permit a reframing. The critical thing about this retrospective understanding is that we can never know when such understanding might occur.

That’s crucial, I believe in action research—we collect stories but may not understand what they are about, or how they connect, until something happens at some later time to allow us to make a connection.

I can think of a personal critical incident where this kind of ‘understanding’ occurred. I was a graduate student, actually. Teaching an eleven year-old about spelling. We were examining some ways that meaning (not sound) is reflected in how words are spelled. I suddenly became schizophrenic—it was as if I were standing across the room watching the action—when something Frank Smith had written (which I had read perhaps two years earlier) suddenly struck me—that the one difficult way to make reading easy was to make it easy!

It was clear from Martin’s response that he was connecting with the words he and I were writing on the blackboard and what had been difficult for him before suddenly made sense—he could see the meaning patterns which are retained in how words are spelled and that changed in quite a profound way his sense of himself as a speller; and I understood that most reading/spelling instruction makes reading/spelling difficult when what learners need is for it to be made easy.

Frank Conroy’s piece.

Two ideas struck me as significant when I first read this short piece

  • first, that much of our experience isn’t immediately understood by us—his contention that the lightbulb may not go on imediately, or that we may not be ready for the lightbulb to go on;
  • second, that even with understanding, there may be no resolution of issues.

Those were significant for me.

I could immediatly remember several instance where my understanding of something only occurred at a much later date—a lot of my learning about hang gliding has been like that—what I think I understand when I read the book, or talk with the other pilots, doesn’t really become mine until I’ve had the experience first hand. Sometimes it’s the other way around—I only understand something that’s happened in the air when I read about it later.