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Teaching for Understanding

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.

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About Harry Webb

Blogging about education and education research

9 responses »

  1. Interestingly a similar argument to yours has emerged in the sociology of knowledge in recent years (especially in Michael Young’s and Rob Moore’s recent work) which makes the case that schooling needs to take pupils beyond everyday experience and into ‘powerful’ forms of knowledge (which they equate with the academic disciplines). To reduce education to everyday experience almost makes education a waste of time, as everyday experience can, by definition, be gained outside of school. The ardent relevant-ist will nevertheless say that this is not a sufficient explanation as it does not say why one body of knowledge is more powerful. Hirsch only answers this in terms of ability to engage (by which I mean communicate!) in modern culture, though this is still a form of relevant-ism! This is why I keep coming back to people such as Hirst and Peters whose argument is, simplistically summarised, that different forms of knowledge help us make sense of our real world – history for the past, geography for space and place, biology for living beings, etc. Of course strictly this too is an argument for relevance, but I think it goes beyond *immediate* relevance. I often find when reading Hirsch that I do not disagree with him, but that his argument does not go far enough.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Teaching for Understanding | Webs of Substance | Learning Curve

  3. I don’t think I even, uh, understand what the know/understand distinction amounts to. What’s the difference between “understanding X” and just “knowing some additional stuff about X”?

    Reply
  4. I’m not sure I disagree with you – I also think that teaching and learning irrelevant stuff is wonderful. But I’m not sure that your arguments are quite hanging together.

    First, a minor shot-yourself-in-the-foot point:
    “…argument against quadratic equations…I don’t see why this means that we should miss them out. I was never taught grammar at school…My life is impoverished because of this.”
    Right, but I’ve literally never heard anyone say that their live was impoverished because of a lack of quadratics, probably because there’s very little call for them outside of a few specialist areas. Quite a lot of people say it about grammar because we really do use language all the time – it is very relevant. You’ve slightly mixed up “engaging” (entertaining as OldAndrew would have it, and I do take his point) and “relevant”.

    But more generally:
    The argument for relevance would be that if you teach subjects of which students have experience, or relate your teaching to things of which students have experience, then they do have more knowledge of them, and you can leverage that knowledge.

    Let us suppose that you’re trying to teach what a mammal is. You give the canonic definition – it’s a vertebrate that bears live young and feeds its young milk. Students dutifully copy it down, but there’s not much light dawning. “You know,” you say, “like a marmoset.” “Like a marmoset,” they repeat. “Or… a dog.” And then they start to get it.

    Or: I live in China, where houses generally don’t have bathtubs. If I were to set a maths question with the taps running and the plughole open – you know the type – there’s a whole wave of incomprehension to wade through before the students will settle and work out the answer. I actually tried this back when I was doing some TEFL.

    So I completely accept that relevance shouldn’t be a limiting criterion, but it seems OTT to dismiss the cognitive shortcuts that you can access by referring to stuff that the pupils are already familiar with. I’d want to phrase it something like: relevance should be a tool which a teacher can use to support and elaborate the content they are teaching.

    Reply
    • OK. Perkins questions the value of teaching quadratics due to their lack of relevance. If I then dispute this, I am therefore making the argument for using deliberately obscure examples when teaching a concept? I think this is a false choice.

      Reply
      • Well if you’re going to argue hardball…
        No, you’re not making any argument at all. To nitpick about the structure of arguments, your argument was:

        >Perkins says don’t teach quadratics.
        >I like sailing and wish I’d learned grammar.
        >Therefore Perkins is wrong.

        Heady stuff from someone who thinks deeply about education.

        Rather than go that route, I thought I’d give you the benefit of the doubt, and assume that you’re making a rather more sensible argument, one that you allude to above.

        “…why shouldn’t students be taken outside of their immediate experience?”

        I agree with that point. But I don’t agree entirely with this:

        “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.”

        I was arguing that relevance does indeed help to lighten the hard slog of learning knowledge. Not eliminate it, but lighten it by using pupils’ existing knowledge as a scaffold where appropriate. More than that, associations are widely thought to assist with learning – think mnemonics – so if you can form associations in the classroom between new knowledge and existing knowledge, that may well help students to remember it. That’s not magic.

        I believe your argument is directed against those who seem to be advocating relevance for relevance’s sake. But this post reads like a wholesale rejection of “relevance”, and that seems OTT.

  5. I am afraid that you are lacking a little coherence here Phil. There seem to be three reasonable positions that you could take:

    1. Your view is that I am not making an argument.
    2. Your view is that I am making an argument that you agree with
    3. Your view is that I am making an argument that you disagree with wholly, or in part.

    They are mutually exclusive. However, you seem to wish to argue position 1 and then snatch this away and argue position 3. This make me wonder what you actually think.

    In terms of position 1, I would say this, but I think that I have made a very clear argument. Perkins & Blythe say, “Not all topics (concepts, themes, theories, historical periods,ideas, and so on) lend themselves equally to teaching for understanding. For instance, it is easier to teach statistics and probability for understanding than quadratic equations, because statistics and probability connect more readily to familiar contexts and other subject matters.” My view is that this and the other comments that they make prioritise relevance over other objectives in the belief that this will promote understanding. I disagree and I outline this with the examples that you mock. Others can take a view as to whether this constitutes an argument.

    When it comes to position 3, I am still not sure what you disagree with. At no point do I suggest that a teacher should not highlight connections where they naturally arise in the subject matter. This is would be an absurd position. The position that you advance is akin to the argument that I have seen recently about ‘fun’. Various bloggers posted their thoughts to the effect that fun is a secondary consideration when planning lessons. The response to this then included those who assumed that these bloggers were suggesting that we make lessons deliberately miserable. This just does not logically follow.

    As for your suggestion that my post ‘reads like’ a wholesale rejection of relevance… Can you not do better? This really is *not* an argument. Do you have any actual rebuttals to what I actually said?

    You may wish to try again.

    Reply
  6. I’m not sure I agree with what his saying. He does have some good points, I feel that his making false choice.

    Reply

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