A Framework for Teaching for Understanding

Every teacher incorporates, knowingly or not, a framework into their classroom practice. This is the skeleton, or bones, of a course and helps provide reference points for what needs to take place in class.

A framework is vital for a couple of reasons – to help consciously focus on your practice so that improvements can be made during reflection and also to create a way to discuss with other teachers how to institute necessary changes. Often times, we are tasked with collaborating with others and if we do not have a framework in place, there will be lots of frustration regarding what approach should be taken. How free are you to teach a shared course the way you want? Having a framework in place helps ease such tensions.

In a classroom that is focused on developing understanding, this becomes even more critical. Understanding, as it is explained by David Perkins, is a performative act in which students are going to move beyond their knowledge base. With a shift in focal point, a framework that helps keep us targeted is vital.

So how extensive is this framework? There are only four components, which is excellent because simplicity allows for us teachers to be productive and not just busy (there are vast differences between the two!).

Here is an excellent rundown of not only understanding as a concept, but also the framework which could be implemented as a reference.

These are:

  • Generative Topics – should be open-ended and stimulate student interest; understanding, as a performative act, is best fueled by students who are invested in finding out the answers to big questions and this will drive thinking and learning
  • Understanding Goals – these are thinking and knowledge goals that should be clear from the outset of any unit or topic; a collective goal allows for everyone to be focused on the task at hand and what destination we are all striving for
    • These can be both specific to the unit but also overarching and pertaining to the entire course – sort of some “big ideas” that you want students to take from the course that they will be revisiting over and over again
  • Performances of Understanding – these are opportunities that encourage students to move beyond what they already know; as opportunities for growth, understanding can occur as students repurpose what they know to meet specific and self-interested solutions
  • Ongoing Assessments – this is the feedback loop that is established within the learning community so that reflection and refinement can occur which can be carried out between teacher and student, student and peers, or a self assessment (what David Thornburg, in From the Campire to the Holodeck, may refer to as “campfires”, “watering-holes”, and “caves”)

When looking at your units and thinking about how to shift your practice into an understanding model over a coverage model, this framework is a good place to start in reevaluating your courses. I strongly recommend The Teaching for Understanding Guide as a great resource to learn more. Ultimately, we want to ask what do we want our students to understand and how will we document it?