Understanding as Performance–Part 1

My legs do better understand me, sir, than I understand what you mean.–Shakespeare. Twelfth Night 3:1.

Last year I wrote a bit about the idea of teaching for understanding. In that post, I tried to put forward two main points.
1. Understanding is a judgment. Perhaps I should have said verdict (with apologies to Leonard Cohen).
2. Understanding occurs across a continuum.
By the first point, I meant that we always use the term understanding to judge some fact about a person—even about ourselves. By the second, I meant that understanding isn’t usually a yes/no question: we can understand to differing depths.
I still hold to those points, but they aren’t my topic today. I’m going to dig all the way back to a 1993 article in American Educator, by Harvard’s David Perkins. The article Teaching for Understanding attempts to define “understanding” in an educational context. Perkins argues that understanding is a performative achievement.

My colleagues and I at the Harvard Graduate School of Education have analyzed the meaning of understanding as a concept. We have examined views of understanding in contemporary research and looked to the practices of teachers with a knack for teaching for understanding. We have formulated a conception of understanding consonant with these several sources. We call it a “performance perspective” on understanding. This perspective reflects the general spirit of “constructivism” prominent in contemporary theories of learning (Duffy and Jonassen, 1992) and offers a specific view of what learning for understanding involves. This perspective helps to clarify what understanding is and how to teach for understanding by making explicit what has been implicit and making general what has been phrased in more restricted ways (Gardner, 1991; Perkins, 1992).

Uh oh. Constructivism. The catch-all-while-meaning-nothing buzzword of the past few decades. I made a few general comments about constructivism here in the context of “whole language instruction”. In my view there are two types of constructivist theory: the trivial and the false. The trivial view is that learning takes place in the context of existing concepts, habits, ideas and so on (what Piaget called “schemata”). This seems to be obviously true, but not very deep. Other attempts have been made to deepen the theoretical scope of constructivism (von Glasersfeld “radical constructivism” is perhaps the most notorious of these). These theories attempt to explain the phenomenon of knowledge as a simple consequence of cognitive construction. They have all, thus far, failed to survive the charge of vicious circularity.
But things are not desperate yet. Perkins says only that he is working with the “spirit” of constructivism. He goes on.

This performance perspective says that understanding a topic of study is a matter of being able to perform in a variety of thought-demanding ways with the topic, for instance to: explain, muster evidence, find examples, generalize, apply concepts, analogize, represent in a new way, and so on. Suppose a student “knows” Newtonian physics: The student can write down equations and apply them to three or four routine types of textbook problems. In itself, this is not convincing evidence that the student really understands the theory. The student might simply be parroting the test and following memorized routines for stock problems. But suppose the student can make appropriate predictions about the snowball fight in space. This goes beyond just knowing. Moreover, suppose the student can find new examples of Newton’s theory at work in everyday experience (Why do football linemen need to be so big? So they will have high inertia.) and make other extrapolations. The more thought-demanding performances the student can display, the more confident we would be that the student understands.

Ok. This is a bit better. What concerns me are phrases like “really knows the theory” as if knowing (more appropriate for this context, understanding) were a simply yes/no judgment. The later comments about confidence in the judgment are more satisfactory. Sadly, this article does not provide enough detail for me to really understand what Perkins is getting to. He goes on.

Understanding something is a matter of being able to carry out a variety of “performances” concerning the topic–performances like making predictions about the snowball fight in space that show one’s understanding and, at the same time, advance it by encompassing new situations. We call such performances “understanding performances” or “performances of understanding”.

And now I’m really confused. Surely Perkins is conflating understanding with “evidence of understanding” here. The ability to carry out performances (such as predictions) is a consequence of understanding; it is not understanding in itself. We are able to use the consequences as evidence for our (always imperfect) judgments about understanding.
If you’re with me this far, you’re probably wondering how important these distinctions are. I know I’m wondering that too. Part of me is pleased with this old Harvard work, and part of me is perplexed by the gaping holes in the presentation.
Perhaps this isn’t surprising. The Perkins article is aimed at teachers, not other scholars. In this sense, I suspect that the article had virtually no impact on teaching and learning. Perkins’s writing simply does not provide sufficient guidance for teachers to move forward.
I’ll be looking into some scholarly back-issues to find out more about this Harvard theory and whether it ever made an impression on the community. Stay tuned.


NOTE (December 27, 2015). The link to the original article went dead. I have linked to a similar article by Perkins, published in Educational Leadership. The quotations are from the original (now lost) article.

David Perkins (1993) TEACHING FOR UNDERSTANDING, American Educator: The Professional Journal of the American Federation of Teachers; v17 n3, pp. 8,28-35, Fall 1993.


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