Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Teaching for Understanding

Faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education collaborated with experienced teachers and researchers to develop and refine a framework for effective practice - Teaching for Understanding. The framework outlines what practice and research alike have found to be elements of effective teaching. There are numerous aspects of this framework that we at Learn – Out of the Box can apply to our work – both in content development as well as teacher training.

What is meant by the term Understanding?
That students learn not just to reproduce or rephrase what is being taught – but instead are able to apply, explain, and analogize the concept (Perkins & Blythe, 1994). 

The TfU framework originally included the following four core elements (Perkins & Blythe, 1998):
  1. Generative Topics: This focuses on the curriculum itself – choosing certain topics to form the core of the curriculum taught. The framework highlights three important aspects that determine whether a topic or concept is worth teaching: the topic must be central to the subject area; accessible, relevant and engaging for both the teacher and students; and should be connectable to a range of topics both within and outside of that specific discipline. Many teachers – similar to those within Learn – Out of the Box – are restricted with regards to the topics they must cover. However, teachers can add different themes or perspectives to existing topics in order to make them more relatable and accessible to students.
  2. Understanding Goals : Since generative topics allow for a fairly broad curriculum structure – it is important to ensure that there are specific understanding goals for a topic. The framework suggests that teachers should create overarching learning goals for the entire year as well as topic specific goals.
  3. Performances of Understanding (Perkins & Blythe, 1994) : The framework prescribes that we must give our students sufficient time within the classroom to engage in actual performances of understanding.What exactly does this mean? Think about how we learn to ride a bicycle or drive a car. It is not by reading a book or observing others – even though these might provide some necessary insight.  In fact, we learn by actually driving – and more specifically by paying close attention to our actions while driving. This should be no different within the classroom. In order to understand a topic – students must be engaged in performances or actions that demonstrate understanding of the topic. Currently many classrooms focus on activities for which students must retain knowledge or perfect routine skills.
  4. On-going Assessment:  In order to learn for understanding – students need assessment to be continuous and to include specific criteria, feedback, and reflection.
As the framework has been continuously tested and adapted, there is a fifth component which has been added. This focuses on the need for collaboration and social interaction within the classroom (Wiske, 1998). 
There are many elements of this framework that are already incorporated into our program. For example: although we work within the constraints of the existing syllabus – we focus on highlighting themes and perspectives that our students and teachers would relate to; a large portion of the content we use is focused on action-based learning that engages students in demonstrating their understanding; and within our teacher training program we do focus on setting specific learning objectives, the process of learning, and providing ongoing assessment.

Moreover, as we plan for phase 2, there are many components from this framework that we can continue to apply –adapting it to the largely resource-constrained environment within which we work.

Perkins, D., & Blythe, T. (1994). Putting understanding up front. Educational Leadership, 51(5), pg. 4-7.
Perkins, D., & Blythe, T. (1998). The Teaching for Understanding Framework. Blythe, T. (ed), The Teaching for Understanding Guide. San Fransisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Wiske, M. S. (1998). Teaching for Understanding: Linking Research with Practice (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.