What is ‘understanding’?

I was tweaking our Year 10 unit (Geographies of Human Wellbeing) using the KUD criteria (Know, Understand, Do). This scaffold, created by differentiation guru Carol Tomlinson, has been around for a while.

  • Students will KNOW: (often represented in bulleted forma
    t) facts, dates, definitions, rules, people, places, vocabulary, information.
  • Students will UNDERSTAND : (best stated as a sentence which includes concept-based thought), Essential questions, theories “Big” ideas, Important generalizations, thesis-like statements
  • Students will DO: (represented with verbs), basic skills, communication, planning/organisation, thinking skills, evaluation, working collaboratively, skills of the discipline: mapping, graphing, collecting data, show p.o.v.

ICapturet was a really interesting exercise to represent the unit in a mindmap, it focussed my mind on what it was exactly what I wanted the students to understand from the this unit. The concept ‘understanding’ is hard to pin down.

David Perkins in “Teaching for Understanding” (1993) defines understanding as follows: 

“understanding a topic of study is a matter of being able to perform in a variety of thought-demanding ways with the topic, for instance to: explain, muster evidence, find examples, generalize, apply concepts, analogize, represent in a new way, and so on.”  a

Raymond Nickerson says that ‘understanding’ …”is an active process. It requires the connecting of facts, the relating of newly acquired information to what is already known, the weaving of bits of knowledge into an integral and cohesive whole. In short, it requires not only having knowledge but also doing something with it… (Nevertheless) all understanding is tenuous and, in a sense, transitory. We are obliged to understand the world in terms of the concepts and theories of our time… At root, understanding is a true paradox: the more one learns…, the more one … (becomes) aware of the depth of one’s ignorance. (And yet) if understanding is a primary goal of education, an effort to understand understanding would seem to be an obligation, even if … (it is) only a partially successful effort.” (pp. 217, 234,236) b

More specifically, researchers have identified key components of the nature of understanding:
Connections, Structures, Performances, Constructing Knowledge, Depth and Type of Knowledge. Excellent elaboration on those components can be found in this literary review on “Teaching for understanding”

So how to do “teach for understanding”? Here a
re six priorities for teachers who teach for understanding, by David Perkins:

  1. Make learning a long-term, thinking-centered process. Teaching is less about what the teacher does than about what the teacher gets the students to do.
  2. Provide for rich ongoing assessment. To learn effectively, students need criteria, feedback, and opportunities for reflection from the beginning of any sequence of instruction (cf. Baron, 1990; Gifford and O’Connor, 1991; Perrone, 1991b). This means that occasions of assessment should occur throughout the learning process from beginning to end
  3. Support learning with powerful representations. Well-chosen analogies often serve to illuminate concepts in science, history, English, and other domains (e.g. Brown, 1989; Clement, 1991; Royer and Cable, 1976). The teacher teaching for understanding needs to add more imagistic, intuitive, and evocative representations to support students’ understanding performances. Besides supplying powerful representations, teachers can often ask students to construct their own representations, an understanding performance in itself.
  4. Pay heed to developmental factors. Again and again, studies have shown that, under supportive conditions, children can understand much more than was thought much earlier than was thought. The picture of intellectual development emerging today is less constrained, more nuanced, and ultimately more optimistic regarding the prospects of education.
  5. Induct students into the discipline. Analyses of understanding emphasize that concepts and principles in a discipline are not understood in isolation (Perkins, 1992; Perkins and Simmons, 1988; Schwab, 1978). Grasping what a concept or principle means depends in considerable part on recognizing how it functions within the discipline. Conventional teaching introduces students to plenty of facts, concepts, and routines from a discipline such as mathematics, English, or history. But it typically does much less to awaken students to the way the discipline works–how one justifies, explains, solves problems, and manages inquiry within the discipline.
  6. Teach for transfer. understand-630x386Research shows that very often students do not carry over facts and principles they acquire in one context into other contexts. They fail to use in science class or at the supermarket the math they learned in math class. They fail to apply the writing skills that they mastered in English on a history essay. Knowledge tends to get glued to the narrow circumstances of initial acquisition. c

Teaching for Understanding (Harvard GSE) from Ethan Vogt on Vimeo.

As an aside: Naturally understanding and thinking are closely aligned, which led me to critical thinking and visible thinking. Here are the six key principles of Visible Thinking, by Ron Ritchhart and David Perkins for the Harvard Project Zero:

What Is Visible Thinking?

  • Learning is a consequence of thinking.
  • Good thinking is not only a matter of skills, but also a matter of dispositions.
  • The development of thinking is a social endeavor.
  • Fostering thinking requires making thinking visible.
  • Classroom culture sets the tone for learning and shapes what is learned.
  • Schools must be cultures of thinking for teachers.  d

Looking into the nature of ‘understanding’ is helping me make the current Year 10 Geography Unit better, more focussed and more relevant. It’s also a reminder of how important it is to take a broader and more conceptual view of teaching and learning; just knowing stuff is too simplistic, it’s what students UNDERSTAND and DO with that knowledge that will make a difference to who they are and who they’ll become.

  1. TEACHING FOR UNDERSTANDING David Perkins American Educator: The Professional Journal of the American Federation of Teachers; v17 n3, pp. 8,28-35, Fall 1993. Accessed: 20/12/15.  https://www.ghaea.org/files/IowaCoreCurriculum/Module2/Teaching_for_Understanding_Perkins_article.pdf  (back)
  2. Entwistle, Noel. 2015. “A Summary Of The ‘Teaching For Understanding’ Project”. http://www.etl.tla.ed.ac.uk//docs/TfUsummary.pdf.  (back)
  3. Perkins, David. 1993. “Teaching For Understanding”. Education.Miami.Edu. http://www.education.miami.edu/blantonw/2800/XBLANTON/READINGS/TEACHUND.HTM.  (back)
  4. Ritchhart, Ron, and David Perkins. 2015. “Making Thinking Visible”. Educational Leadership. http://www.visiblethinkingpz.org/VisibleThinking_html_files/06_AdditionalResources/makingthinkingvisibleEL.pdf.  (back)