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.)

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