Teaching for Understanding

Until the 1960’s, teaching for memorization had long been confused with teaching for understanding. Widely accepted was the idea that the study of traditional disciplines in wide breadth would contribute to students’ overall ability to learn further. The “sage on the stage” model was effective in this context as teachers viewed students as empty vessels, ready to acquire new learning through being “filled” by experts- their teachers. However, research over the last several decades proves that students are not empty vessels or blank slates; they come to new learning environments with schema that could help or hinder new understanding.  In fact, as Bransford, Brown & Cocking explain, “All learning involves transfer from previous experiences,”  (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000, p. 68). Teachers who desire that students not only learn facts or procedures -a mere one step up from rote practice- must be aware of the experiences, cultures, and preconceived understandings that contribute to their students’ success in learning new concepts, and must plan accordingly. It is especially true of teachers who wish to integrate technology effectively and subsequently of the students in this particular course which evaluates educational technologies, since technology is one of three critical elements in TPACK. When used effectively, technology, linked with pedagogy and content knowledge can impact student understanding to a stronger degree than lesson plans devoid of technology, since technology requires the traits that develop quality teaching: “Teachers with flexibility of thought, tolerance of ambiguity and willingness to experiment can combine traits that perfectly design and tailor their own educational content,” (Kereluik,  Mishra & Koehler, p. 17).

  In order to prepare curricula that appropriately support learners given this understanding, teachers will find useful the study of how expert knowledge differs from that of a novice, and applying these models to their teaching. It is in this way that teaching is a balancing act that, when properly understood, has incredible potential for helping students learn.

In an era during which major discourse on education centers around teaching students to be critical thinkers and creative problem solvers, it is almost inconceivable that during the early twentieth century, “It was not the general rule for educational systems to train people to think and read critically, to express themselves clearly and persuasively, to solve complex problems” (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000, p. 4). As a regular practitioner of the workshop teaching model, I can scarce imagine such a reality in which metacognition was not the order of the day! Now teachers know that in order to truly engage a student in his or her learning, and to have any hope of helping the student transfer new knowledge to future situations, we must evaluate the differences between the respective understandings of experts and novices. Where novices may recall information in a linear fashion, requiring reference points related to the chronology of learning, “experts’ abilities to think about and solve problems depend strongly on a rich body of knowledge” (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 9) Circumstances in which novices may draw only upon disjointed facts or principles differ substantially from those for whom subject-area expertise is the norm, The latter understand the complexity of relationships in context; their organization of knowledge is multileveled, fluently referenced, and nuanced. A final element of learning that resonates with experts but not with novices is the reality that experts are not simply those with all the answers. Experts are more accurately “accomplished novices,” individuals who “realize what they know is miniscule compared to all that is potentially knowable” (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 48).

If, then, experts enjoy a complex body of knowledge, are practiced in contextual problem solving, and understand that their knowledge is relative to that which remains unknown, how can teachers become thusly empowered to teach for understanding? These are the moments in which the balancing act motif of education becomes critical. Knowing that students approach learning with prior background knowledge, teachers can incorporate the recognition of that schema into lessons, simultaneously providing opportunities for students to engage with material using an exploratory approach conducive to the modification of that understanding. Inquiry-based and workshop models could prove especially fruitful in these settings. Teachers must also plan for how students’ isolated or incomplete knowledge of a concept introduced earlier may become an obstacle in building upon that knowledge. To mediate this roadblock, teachers are wise to teaching overarching concepts in multiple arenas that provide students with opportunities to practice a concept -perhaps the cause and effect relationship- in multiple settings, such as a scientific experiment, the interpretation of an historical conflict, and a fictional character study. Furthermore, to orchestrate an environment in which learning can build upon itself and in which motivation remains high, teachers need to consider the value in decreasing anxiety by emphasizing that all learners are on a path to understanding concepts at deeper levels, instead of simply having all the answers. Metacognition, “the ability to recognize the limits of one’s current knowledge, then take steps to remedy the situation” (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 47) must be absolutely paramount. Establishing this powerful truth with clarity creates an environment where learners feel liberated free to build upon their understanding, becoming active participants in constructing learning that will last.

References

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school (Expanded edition). (pp. 3-78).  Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. Retrieved from http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309070368

Kereluik, K., Mishra, P. & Koehler, M.J. (2011). On learning to subvert signs: Literacy, technology and the TPACK framework. The California Reader, 44(2), p13.

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2 thoughts on “Teaching for Understanding

  1. Hi, it looks like you’re blogging as part of a course you’re taking. Your post was bang on. The best point you made was about metacognition, and the fact we need to be aware of our limits. Too few people, let alone children are aware of, or accept the fact that they have limits. As a mentor once told me, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” There is a fear of looking weak, or stupid, but there is also an ignorance of how little we actually do know. We see it all the time on talent shows, where people think they sing and dance better than anyone else. That is, until they see the others on stage, and they hear the criticism from the judges, and harsh reality sets in. Inquiry based education can only work when the learner understands that she can make mistakes safely, and when the learner accepts that she has to change her schema in the face of ideas and experiences. To quote something I just saw on Pinterest, “If you made a mistake, it means you were trying.”

  2. I absolutely love the portion of your essay when you discuss changing the thinking of the teacher before you can change that of the students. “Furthermore, to orchestrate an environment in which learning can build upon itself and in which motivation remains high, teachers need to consider the value in decreasing anxiety by emphasizing that all learners are on a path to understanding concepts at deeper levels, instead of simply having all the answers.” Each year as we obtain a new group of students, those students are conditioned to “find the right answers” rather than their “path to understanding”. If this idea was started early on, it would be a much simpler concept for our students to understand.

    Also, the last sentence of your essay is very compelling: “Establishing this powerful truth with clarity creates an environment where learners feel liberated free to build upon their understanding, becoming active participants in constructing learning that will last.” Learning that lasts is what we should all strive for with each one of our students. Beginning with the mindsets of our fellow peers as well as our students we can graduate into a higher level of learning, learning that lasts.

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