Tips for Teaching For Understanding: Understanding Goals

According to The Teaching for Understanding Guide, there are four components to the framework:

  • Generative Topics
  • Understanding Goals
  • Performances of Understanding
  • Ongoing Assessment

We looked at Generative Topics here and that would be a great place to start if you are considering retooling your practice. Here, we are going to take a look at Understanding Goals and how they can be implemented.

First of all, there are two types of understanding goals – ones that are unit specific and ones that are overarching and course specific.

An understanding goal orients your students towards a specific purpose, it fleshes out what understanding looks like. Understanding is the product of thinking and learning, it moves beyond knowledge through action and application. We want to funnel our students towards a tangible goal so that it can be measured. Otherwise, how can we assess our students’ progress without giving them a goal to be measured by?

Another aspect that seems important for an understanding goal, that is that these goals are not binary in nature or looking for a specific, targeted, answer. Rather they are open-ended and are looking for students to demonstrate their thinking. Understanding goals then should be created as statements and as questions. Usually, a handle like “Students will demonstrate/understand…” is a great way to state your understanding goal. You can then rephrase this as a question, which can be used to help generate unit activities.

For example, in AP Art History, we could create unit understanding goals through understanding statements and questions. For Content Area 1, which deals with prehistoric art, we could refine the Enduring Understanding statement in the following way:

Students will understand the relationship between prehistoric art and the natural world and humans’ place within it. (How did prehistoric humans express their relationship to the natural world?)

Notice how that easily orients both teacher and student towards the goals for this particular unit, in this case prehistoric art. Planning activities and opportunities for understanding become much easier when you have a goal in mind. This is no different than what most of us do already – in fact, some may be using Backwards By Design terminology to achieve the same objective. Some may be targeting their standards (state and national) to help create these same statements. The key is to make them focus on understanding, and not on specific routines or targeting bits of information in response to questions. We want open-ended goals which also provide a means to assess student progress.

Now, what about overarching understanding goals that are more specific to the course and not to particular units? It seems the best way to gain insight into those is after you have planned several units, certain understanding “themes” will emerge. In the past, I created a CMM (content mastery map) for each unit and then fleshed out “essential questions” for each unit. Although there is a sense of overarching goals in place, it was never explicitly stated. This seems to be the key towards getting students to become thinkers over “regurgitators” and this is also the key component for establishing a culture of thinking within my practice.

In short, we want our students to not be mere consumers of information, but producers of it as well and this can only take place when we raise an awareness of thinking within our classes. Getting those overarching goals in place is a major part of that redevelopment.

In AP Art History, we have “big ideas” that work more like these overarching goals. For example, big idea #1 is “artists manipulate materials and ideas to create an aesthetic object, act, or event.” That can be used as an overarching understanding goal statement. There are also “essential questions” listed under each big idea, for example “What is art and how is it made?”. That can be used as an overarching understanding goal question.

A great way to approach this is to use what you got. Look over your textbook or other course materials and see if you can make similar revisions. The key is to have patience and look for the lowest hanging fruit. This transition will take time and further revision is in your future. As you create these understanding goals, you will find that some work while others need to be refined. You will also find that your students will want to make suggestions – and this is perhaps the most powerful way to retool your class because now you are taking in feedback and aligning it towards actual student interest (as opposed to theoretical, which we always think we can predict what will be a hit with students!).