Friday, October 22, 2010

Teaching for Understanding

When I trained to be a teacher, in the early '80s, and during my first few years of teaching in England before moving into international schools, I heard very little about understanding.  The goal seemed to be to make sure the students learnt the facts, and that they could recall the facts during exams.  Teaching was heavily based on textbooks, worksheets and activities.  A lot of what we did was teach topics and then test students on what they could remember, often using multiple choice tests that came with the textbooks.  All the assessments were summative - I'd never even heard of formative assessment.

However when I was teaching at the International School of Amsterdam I attended the Harvard Project Zero summer institute which focused on teaching for understanding.  The school also started using the visible thinking routines which were very helpful in having students think through their theories and  explain their understanding.  Some years after this when teaching in Bangkok I did a workshop with Grant Wiggins on Understanding by Design (also called Backwards by Design).  Again, the focus was teaching for understanding.  It was in these schools that I also heard about formative assessment, which I have come to think of as much more important than summative assessment - in fact if we do the formative assessments of understanding properly, so that they inform our teaching, there's often not a great need for extra summative assessments.

The IB explains that
The central purpose of teaching and learning is to help students develop and extend the concepts they use to understand the world, solve problems and communicate …. A new concept is developed when meaningful connections are made between bodies of knowledge and other existing concepts and the process of making those connections leads to a deeper understanding of the world.
Inquiry is central to the PYP programme, and inquiry involves asking questions which help students to make these connections and develop their conceptual thinking.  Students are expected to explore significant issues by formulating their own questions in order to design their own inquiries and move “from their current level of understanding to a new and deeper level of understanding.”

I love the emphasis on understanding that permeates all the IB programmes.  For me, now, it would be impossible to go back to a system where students work through a textbook a year, with tests at the end of each chapter and the answers in the back of the book.

Photo Credit:  This my Daddy gave me by Iris Shreve Garrott


  1. I like what you say about formative assessment and the effect that is has on "summative assessment". What strikes me is that despite the difference between those two types of assessment that ultimately all assessment is FOR learning. We assess current levels of understanding and move forward from there. This is ongoing in everything we do.
    Just writing this also makes me understand the importance of key concepts even more. As they are the concepts that run through the PYP. (Maggie, obviously your post has just helped me make a MASSIVE connection for myself! Thanks!)

  2. It's a shame that as a school we have moved to teaching maths from a 'textbook' programme and I died a little when I received 4 sets of 20 workbooks for my students this year.

  3. Maggie,
    I would love if you would do a post for those of us who aren't at inquiry based schools in a program like the PYP. I understand the concept and believe that it leads to deeper and richer thinking opportunities (inquiry does that for me) but would love to know what the actual process of student inquiry looks like. Are students given a topic and then choose what to learn more about based on the questions that they ask? Are students intentionally taught how to be inquirers or is it picked up as they see it modeled?
    As always, love your posts!

  4. OK I will do a whole post about inquiry and the process we go through with the students, and about how we plan for inquiry. Will probably have to be next week though! Busy, busy right now.