I recently found this video via a tweet from Jay McTighe. It features David Perkins, Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education:
A couple of notable quotes include:
“Traditionally, education has been about educating for the known; it’s about what we knew and let’s have you know it too. But today, more than ever before, we have to worry about educating for the unknown.”
“The thing about understanding is that it is inherently flexible. If I know X, Y and Z, and I just know it then what am I going to do when somebody puts problem Q in front of me? But if I understand X, Y and Z and somebody says problem Q, then I can say hmmm, well what does that have to do with X, Y and Z? Oh, I see a connection; I can extract some principles from X, Y and Z and – you know what – they are relevant to Q. Understanding is inherently more general than just knowing stuff; it has stretch, it has reach, it has leverage.”
Perkins is essentially making an argument here about transfer; the ability to transfer knowledge from one domain to another. This is notoriously difficult to achieve but Perkins thinks that the solution lies in an approach centred around teaching for understanding. Perkins has been making this case, in different forms, for many years. I am not totally convinced that understanding is a qualitatively different attribute to extensive knowledge (see this post), but I would certainly wish to develop understanding in my students. I therefore approach these ideas with interest.
In this paper with Tina Blythe, Perkins and Blythe present a four-part framework to promote teaching for understanding. The four parts are:
1. Generative Topics
2. Understanding Goals
3. Understanding Performances
4. Ongoing Assessment
The argument around generative topics is largely an argument for some kind of relevance. Where direct relevance to a student’s life is not possible and where that topic still needs to be taught, for example because a school district insists upon it, Perkins advocates a thematic approach where the theme is the part that is relevant. For instance, although the study of Romeo and Juliet is of little utility in the lives of teenagers, one could subsume this into an exploration of the generation gap. Similarly, teaching about plants could be justified by linking it to notions of the interconnectedness of all things.
I am deeply skeptical about the relevance argument. I think that we fundamentally limit children by not asking them to move outside of what is relevant. If you accept, as I do, Hirsch’s argument about the need for broad background knowledge in order to be able to read and access sources of information – such as serious newspapers – then it is difficult to see how all of this knowledge can be made relevant. And why shouldn’t students be taken outside of their immediate experience? I remember being taken sailing as a secondary school student. It was something that I had no experience of nor interest in, largely because I knew little of it. However, it is something that I grew to enjoy immensely and my memories of it are vivid.
Perkins uses this argument against quadratic equations. There is no doubt that quadratics are not used frequently in everyday life. He contrasts this with probability and statistics which are much more useful (said the social scientist…). Yes, quadratics don’t turn everyone on. However, I don’t see why this means that we should miss them out. I was never taught grammar at school, probably because the prevailing view at that time was that grammar was arcane and not engaging for students. My life is impoverished because of this.
The other elements of the four-part strategy are ones that I will paraphrase by stating that goals should be set in terms of what you want students to understand and that assessment should be structured such that students can receive feedback which they have an opportunity to act upon; effectively a call for formative assessment.
The case, ultimately, represents a form of magical thinking. No-one could object to the goal of developing a proper understanding of key concepts. However, it is unlikely that this is possible without going through a stage of knowing things with less understanding. In other words, to get to a point where you truly understand X, Y and Z sufficiently to transfer this understanding to Q, you will first have to pass through a stage where you just know X, Y and Z. Dan Willingham makes the argument here from the perspective of cognitive science. As he states, “Cognitive science has shown us that when new material is first learned, the mind is biased to remember things in concrete forms that are difficult to apply to new situations. This bias seems best overcome by the accumulation of a greater store of related knowledge, facts, and examples.”
Relevance, and a little bit of formative assessment is not the magic recipe that allows you to miss out the hard slog of learning domain knowledge.