Tips for Teaching For Understanding: Understanding Performances

Previously, we summarized what Understanding Goals are and their placement within the Teaching for Understanding framework. Let’s take a look at Understanding Performances to see how they relate.

The major difference between understanding goals (UGs) and understanding performances (UPs) is UGs state what students should understand while UPs are what students do to demonstrate their understanding.

Performances of understanding are needed to make student understanding transparent. As teachers, we are looking to assess our students’ abilities and this requires creating a feedback loop where we can insert feedback and students can refine their work. This process is how any learning takes shape in class – sometimes, however, the activities we plan on fall short of targeting understanding but instead focus only on developing basic skills or knowledge. Recall that understanding is what students do that goes beyond the limitations of their knowledge. It is an active principle and as such, it requires observation.

In other words, understanding performances are required to demonstrate student development and understanding.

Most importantly, these understanding performances have to be aligned to your unit’s understanding goals. This underscores the importance of developing understanding goals that are unit-specific so that both teachers and students can be oriented towards the task at hand. Teachers have a lot of information and content to “cover” but a limited amount of time to pull this off. It is important to note that in order to effectively move from coverage to understanding, we have to pick what is critical to our discipline and be efficient. Understanding performances should be in alignment with the understanding goals.

Thus planning a unit should also be about sequencing these understanding performances in such a way to be effective and use the fixed time we have. There are introductory performances, guided inquiry performances (middle of the unit), and culminating performances. Think of it as an inverted triangle, funneling down to a point that would be the apex of understanding for each student.

Introductory performances of understanding should be thought of as “hooks” to get students interested and curious about the unit. They should be in alignment with the generative topic, which is the theme for the unit, and should hit upon the understanding goals. One important aspect of this is to make it relevant to students in general so that it will invite as many students in as possible.

Next would be guided inquiry performances, which could be tailored to smaller groups or even individuals. These activities should be more about fine-tuning any misconceptions that may still linger after the introductory performances but they should also reinforce understanding goals for the unit more clearly. Students should be able to draw more clearly upon the UGs at this point.

Finally the culminating performance should be an activity that gives students the chance to demonstrate their mastery of understanding that they have been developing throughout the unit.

The Teaching for Understanding Guide serves as a great overview with examples for this whole process and I strongly recommend that anyone considering making these changes to their practice gets a copy to review. Also, another great book to help with developing more of these ideas is Making Thinking Visible, by Ron Ritchhart.

What does this look like from the teacher side? We have to shift from content dispensers to coaches and see ourselves floating in the classroom and observing students at work. We will have to interact with our students and ask them follow up questions about what they are working on and why. One powerful question to ask and use as a shorthand is “What makes you say that?” (“WMYST?”). Once you get to the point where students are ready to demonstrate their mastery of a unit, you should use rubrics and supply them ahead of time so that students can anticipate what they need to be able to do. Once they create these products for understanding, we need to also give the students time to reflect on their new learning but also give them the opportunity to get peer feedback before turning in the final product. Revision should be a part of the culture of thinking that we are developing in our classes and allowing for revision helps.