Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What is Understanding?

When I was teaching at the International School of Amsterdam we were encouraged to put our names forward to attend Harvard Project Zero.  Now this wasn't just a summer school we were signing up for, it was to be part of a year-long cohort that would together work towards answering the question what is understanding and how do we teach for it?  We also committed to making a presentation the following spring at a conference for teachers from other schools that were exploring the same issues.

Having been chosen to be part of the cohort, we had our first meeting at school.  The group was being led by a Middle School maths teacher who asked us to write our definition of understanding down and put it in a sealed envelope - we would be looking at those definitions again once we returned from the summer to see if our thinking had changed.

So what is understanding?  It's different from knowing. Knowing is more a recall of facts or knowing how to do something.  We were asked to think about something we knew how to do and to think about how we came to know it.  This could have been something like cooking, driving a car, swimming, whatever.  How did we learn to do those things?  Well some of those things we could have read about - for example we could have read a cookery book.  But in order to learn to cook you actually have to cook - to try it out for yourself.  And if you become a good cook, then no doubt you have tried a variety of recipes out and perhaps varied the ingredients a little to find out what works best.

When I was in Bangkok I decided to take swimming lessons.  Before this I could swim, but not very well.  For example I couldn't put my face into the water at all.  I did get much better, but it involved a lot of swimming backwards and forwards, trying different things out, thinking hard about what was working and working hard at the things I was weak at (putting my head under water).  And although my only real goal had been to swim a bit better doing breast stroke, my swimming teacher made me learn lots of other strokes too.  What I am trying to say here is that to get better at swimming, to really master it, I actually had to do it in many different ways.

Understanding goes beyond knowing and doing.  To understand something you need to be able to apply what you know or can do in a variety of different contexts.  But understanding also involves being able to carry out "performances of understanding".  As teachers if we want our students to understand something we also have to give them the opportunities for these "performances".  For these performances to be successful students need to have a lot of feedback along the way to help them reflect on progress and on what they need to do to get better.  These performances should not just be part of a summative assessment, but ongoing or formative assessments, so that students demonstrate their understanding right from the start and have plenty of time for reflecting on our feedback so that they can move further and deepen their understanding.

Photo Credit:  Why is the sky blue?  by Optick

1 comment:

  1. I really like the wording "performances of understanding" this is a little bit like the boy scout model. I wonder what would happen if instead of giving grades (in the traditional sense) we gave merit badges (like in boy scouts) instead. Based on the performances and ongoing assessment.