Teaching for Understanding

One can hardly turn a page of a teaching book or journal without reading a celebration of “teaching for understanding”. If we’re to buy the hype, teachers have traditionally just dumped information at students, who gathered and sorted as much as possible and then dumped it back at teachers. The teachers then took the student information dump, counted the bits deemed to be correct, then moved on. This often-repeated caricature has become something of a truism in educational criticism. Read some Paulo Freire for a view from critical theory, or listen to Sir Ken Robinson’s famous Ted Talk for a light and entertaining (but not convincing, IMO) version.

Caricatures notwithstanding, this does point to an important idea in education. It’s not that information is irrelevant to education, it’s that the understanding of information is more important. The internet is full of information; but without understanding it is somewhere between useless and dangerous. It also points to a tempting but woefully-wrongheaded view of education that pushes teachers to play the information banking scheme, depositing stakes test information into students’ lives, and insisting on equal withdrawals on exam day.

There is an opposite, but equally problematic push from this caricature of education. Some theorists, followed by some curriculum-makers have proclaimed that information is cheap and not worthy of a student’s mental energy. Who needs to know geographic (or historical, or scientific, or arithmetical…) facts, when they can be looked up in a few seconds on the internet? Why fill young brains, goes the argument, with information, when students can look at their monitors (or phones or calculators or whatever), get the information, then use their deep reasoning skills—the real business of education—to analyze, to predict, to create. I must say that this is tempting. But it turns out to be a false hope. Human short-term memory can only hold a very small amount of information at once. (There’s a good reason phone numbers are 7 digits long.) Pushing attention back and forth from a map, or calculator, to the work at hand is extraordinarily mentally taxing. The details are still very poorly understood, but we should be cautious about giving up on storing facts in long-term memory. It turns out that having number facts, scientific data, historical timelines, etc. in our minds makes the tasks of understanding and application much easier and straightforward.

Which brings me to the point of this entry: understanding. It’s easy to talk about understanding, but it turns out to be less clear what we are talking about. How can you tell that you understand something? What does it mean for a student to understand the theory of evolution by natural selection? Or to understand the causes of First World War?

It should be clear on a minute’s reflection that the recitation of facts does not indicate understanding. To demonstrate understanding, a student needs to provide an account that is acceptable to someone who already understands. (This sounds circular but it isn’t. The world is big and we’ve all been around long enough for it to be clear that many people have understanding; we acknowledge expertise in every field. We can safely leave the chicken-and-egg puzzle to the philosophers and just get on with teaching, learning and assessment.) This is why it is crucial that the teacher have disciplinary knowledge. The canons of argumentation and standards for evidence are different in each discipline—there are overlaps of course—and if the teacher is to judge that a student understands something, the teacher must be sufficiently accomplished in the discipline to make the call.

So that’s the first big idea for today: Understanding is a judgment.

What kinds of accounts are satisfactory? This is a very big and deep question. If you haven’t read my entries on Universal Design for Learning, now might be a good time. They don’t answer the question, but they do frame it in an important contemporary way. The general answer is that satisfactory accounts depend on the age and maturity of the student, the disciplinary achievements of the student and the depth that is demanded by the curriculum and/or the teacher.

Second big idea: Understanding occurs across a continuum.

This is fairly easy to see. If you ask a 12-year-old, a high school student, a history undergraduate and a university historian to explain the causes of the First World War, you should reasonably expect differing levels of detail, different sorting of the relevance of the details, differing understanding of competing views, and differing plausibility of causes and their effects. How could you not? The point is not that understanding is a “yes/no” judgment; it is that people can understand to differing depths.

So let’s get back to the classroom. What does it mean to teach for understanding? If what I’ve said so far is correct, it at least entails the following.

For students to understand something, they must

  1. Possess sufficient information to make inferences.
  2. Know how to assess new or “looked up” information in order to decide whether it is relevant.
  3. Understand what counts as relevant information for the question at hand.
  4. Know how to construct a logical argument.
  5. Be able to communicate the argument.
  6. Be able to respond to probing questions.

As I never tire of writing, for meaningful learning to occur, a great deal of stage-setting must be done first.

I intend to look more carefully at all the items in my list. I might have missed one or two, but this will do for now. Teaching for understanding is a good thing. It isn’t quite as simple as it first appears, though.

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