Teaching For Understanding

Before embarking upon the Teaching for Understanding (TfU) journey, a teacher is asked a series of questions:

How can I as a teacher encourage deeper understanding?
What skills must I impart to my students to ensure their success?
How can I support students to understand well enough to apply learning in new contexts?
How can I create an environment of active learning in my classroom?

These were the types of questions that A.B. Paterson College asked of its teaching staff in 1998, when settling on Teaching for Understanding as an adoptive pedagogical framework. It fitted much of the criteria drawn up by staff at the school for a successful pedagogy – this had to be flexible, well researched and have a proven effectiveness in encouraging students to think and progress towards deep learning. Teaching for Understanding is all of this and much more!

At the dawn of the 21st century, there was a realisation that success would rely heavily on soft skills such as innovation and collaboration, and these are the requisite skills that will produce inventors, entrepreneurs and innovators.

Sometimes it is best to think about what Teaching for Understanding is not; for instance, it is not about ‘knowing the facts’, or ‘knowing the routines’. So what is it about and how does it tie into the 21st century? Teaching for Understanding is about exploring, debating, arguing, problem-solving and making plans. Teaching for Understanding moves beyond behavioural goals and the concrete - it is about wielding what you know, thinking with it, reasoning with it, inventing with it. A Performance of Understanding is just that – expressing and acting out the understanding by exploring and questioning, perhaps developing analogies….and so much more!

Dr. David Perkins, a chief architect of the Teaching for Understanding Framework, once asked, ‘What is the difference about knowing and understanding?’ Hopefully the answer is in what you have read, but David can start the answer…a dynamic journey through ever-challenging Performances of Understanding that test, stretch and expand your knowledge to enable it to be…….over to you!

A little more about the framework

Teaching for Understanding is exactly that….it does exactly what it says on the tin!

To quote Lao Tse: "The more you know, the less you understand"!

The TfU framework is an effective way of putting understanding at the centre of lessons, and ensuring that subject content is related to areas that learners find enjoyable and accessible. The framework advocates that lessons give students the opportunity to engage with the subject matter in a way that allows them to nurture and develop understanding.  In such lessons, teachers act as facilitators of learning and the learner has an active role. The TfU framework asks you to think about four generic questions, and answers them in the following way;

What topics shall we teach?

For this we look to Generative Topics.

Generative Topics promote valued understanding.

Generative Topics should be:

  • Central to the discipline
  • Engaging to students and teachers
  • Accessible through resources
  • Richly connected to other valued topics

What about those topics should students learn?

For this we look to Understanding Goals.

Understanding Goals make explicit what we aim for the students to understand.

Understanding Goals are:

  • Explicitly articulated, so that what is to be understood about the Generative Topic is clear
  • Publicly posted and referred to in instruction
  • Directly aimed at concepts to be understood, not just at work to be completed

What will students do to learn?

This is covered via Performances of Understanding.

Performances of Understanding are sequences of learning experiences that require students to engage regularly, actively, and thoughtfully with the ideas and concepts to be understood.

  • Students work actively in a novel context with the ideas and concepts to be understood
  • Students must think in order to work with the ideas and concepts
  • What students do aligns directly with what they are trying to understand
  • What students do shows what they understand

How will we know what students have learned?

We do this with Ongoing Assessment, and we find ways to check students' understanding regularly. We can then evaluate and revise instruction by adjusting what we ask them to do next, so that it will help them the most.

  • It occurs throughout a unit or course of instruction, not just at the end
  • Focuses on learning and understanding, not just on judging and grading
  • Varies by who offers it and how it is conducted
  • Refers to public criteria known to the students

One more Chinese proverb!

Tell me, I forget
Show me, and I remember
Involve me, and I understand

Richard Worsey
Director of Teaching and Learning

How is understanding distinct from the acquisition of knowledge and skills, and how do these learning elements inter-relate?

How does our College address these important elements through its own Teaching for Understanding framework?

Principal, Brian Grimes discusses The Essence of Education in an enlightening article.