Teaching for Understanding

Learning facts can be a crucial backdrop to learning for understanding, but learning facts is not learning for understanding.

From ‘What is Understanding’ 

Teaching for knowledge or teaching for understanding? This is a hot topic for some educators who use social media. It can become a rather abstract and artificial debate at times but it’s important to think about how ideas of ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ influence curriculum design and day-to-day practice in teaching, learning and assessment.

Is the curriculum relevant to the students?

Can students use the knowledge being taught?

Do students understand the knowledge being learnt?

‘If you can’t actually take an idea outside the classroom and use it, you don’t really get it. But once you use it on your own, its yours forever.’

Robert H Frank, economist

Teachers and researchers at Harvard Graduate School of Education, including Howard Gardner*, David Perkins, Vito Perrone, Rebecca Simmons and Martha Stone Wiske, have put some of their thinking into action and worked collaboratively for several years to develop a “Teaching for Understanding Framework” based on four main ideas:
  1. Generative Topics: These topics are connected to students’ interests and experiences. They can be learned in many different ways and build on previous topics.
  2. Understanding Goals: These are statements or questions describing what students should aim to understand during a course.
  3. Performances of Understanding: These are activities that require students to apply their knowledge in new ways to show their progress and their grasp of the Understanding Goals.
  4. Ongoing Assessment: This is the process of continual feedback to students about their Performances of Understanding in order to improve them.

The framework goes beyond “show and tell” and encourages students to “grow and show” their understanding and application of knowledge.

There’s more information about the Teaching for Understanding project here and you can find some practical workshop resources here.

How does this framework fit with practice in adult learning? Where does ‘knowledge’ fit in? Thoughts?

(* There’s more on Howard Gardner in an earlier guest blog by Mary Hunter here.)

About Ann Walker
Adult education and lifelong learning specialist and campaigner. LinkedIn: http://linkd.in/1GI0QK1

13 Responses to Teaching for Understanding

  1. gogwit says:

    Reblogged this on Gogwit's Blog and commented:
    Your opening quotation distils what is at the heart of learning. Experience of specific instances build into a generic understanding of a class of instances which can be used to predict other specific instances that may not, hitherto, have been encountered. Hence the presentation of ‘facts’ can support learning but is not enough, in itself.
    Your second quotation summarises my concerns about teaching ‘to the test’ without exercising the ability to transfer skills, or apply them in unfamiliar contexts.
    The ‘Teaching for Understanding Framework’ you describe understands and gives emphasis to these considerations.
    Thank you for posting this.

    • Ann Walker says:

      Thanks for the reblog and comment Ben as well as the follow up on Twitter.

      I don’t think that a straightforward knowledge versus understanding argument is helpful. We need both, but we need to know how to assess and apply knowledge – and to be able to research,develop and expand it.

  2. infostocksy says:

    Two thoughts (i) You can’t teach people what they want to learn and everyone’s learning journey is very unique (ii) You might need to reinvent the wheel cause the road ahead may have changed – so after evaluating and finding that delivery has been fantastic, you should still re-identify need as things may have changed and like a comedian in a different town every night, you should know your audience, not easy in session one.

    • Ann Walker says:

      Always good to hear from you Steve. Thanks.

      Interesting to explore the comedian / audience comparison and the relationship between a performance (teaching) and the response (learning).

      Thanks again.

  3. joaniepthemadhatter says:

    Reblogged this on The MadHatter's Corner.

  4. Sheila Dainton says:

    Some reflections on the type of learning and teaching encouraged by the WEA – and what is practically possible in the ‘real’ world.

    It’s great (and educationally important) that the WEA encourages inclusivity, dialogue, sharing learning experiences, interactive learning, formative assessment and so on. This is the important stuff of learning.

    However, I have recently attended two WEA 10-week classes each of which had around 30 students and have been left wondering about the tension between the type of learning and teaching that is desirable, and that is encouraged by the WEA, and the reality of what is actually achievable in classes of this size.

    In both cases the situation was frustrating for tutors and students alike. The rooms were barely large enough to accommodate this number of students and, health and safety concerns to one side, seating arrangements – constrained by group/room size – not in the least conducive to dialogue and interaction.

    On the one hand it is encouraging that branches are able to attract this number of students. On the other, it is deeply frustrating. With the best will in the world, classes of this size held in rooms where only ‘formal’ seating arrangements are possible, are not conducive to effective learning.

    For such popular classes, one possible solution is to run parallel groups, but this is a tall order for the tutor – and possibly for the branch too.

    Should the WEA consider offering advice on class size to branches – and should optimum and maximum numbers be suggested?

    Thank you for listening.

    Sheila Dainton

  5. Ann Walker says:

    Thank you for commenting on this Sheila. It’s an important issue and I appreciate your feedback. I’m sorry that your learning experience was not of the expected standard and I hope that your branch and tutors can work with local WEA staff to resolve the problems.

    Large classes of over 30 are unusual across the WEA as a whole but can be a feature of some popular courses run by our volunteer-led branches. As you say, they show how hard branch volunteers work to attract and engage students but your points are well made and I understand the tensions that you describe. Whatever the class size, we expect students to have suitable accommodation, clear learning aims and to receive feedback, support and assessment of their learning so that they know what progress they have made and what they can do next.

    There’s a Regional Education Managers’ meeting next week and I’ll make sure that your comments are passed on. It might also be an item for discussion at the next WEA Council, where voluntary members can discuss issues that concern them. I’ll pass your comments to the meeting’s organisers as well.

    According to Ofsted’s independent ‘Learner View’ survey at the time of writing, 98% of WEA students would recommend us to a friend. The survey is available online at: file:///C:/Users/User/Downloads/results_survey_result-print_1793_current%20(1).pdf

    However, we want every student to have a positive learning experience so we’ll learn from your comments and I hope you and other students affected by this problem get much more satisfaction from future courses.

    Thanks again Sheila.

    • Sheila Dainton says:

      Thank you for responding so quickly Ann, and so helpfully too.

      One solution is for branches and tutors to agree optimum/maximum class size when planning the branch programme. Much will depend on the tutor’s preferred teaching style and, of course, the size of the room. This has happened in our local branch and has worked well. (The two courses I have attended were organised by neighbouring branches.)

      It’s always difficult to turn people away but in my experience, on occasion, this has been necessary – but people have always been encouraged to attend alternative courses.

      At the other extreme, I know of many branch volunteers, myself included, who have enrolled on an under-subscribed course simply to make sure that the course goes ahead. This is particularly the case with new courses.

      No easy answers …

      Thank you again for listening.


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