Teaching for Understanding


“Help me understand how I learn, and I can conquer the world.”

(McNeal, 2020)


Most people would agree that education should be about teaching for understanding, but fewer would say that our schools are regularly achieving this goal. While traditional lectures, exercises, and drills may help students memorize facts and formulas and get the right answers on tests, this time-honored style of teaching does not help students achieve the depth of understanding they need to understand complex ideas and apply knowledge in new settings or situations. Noted Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, in a 1993 interview, commented that studies have shown that many students, even at the college level, “do not understand, in the most basic sense of that term. That is, they lack the capacity to take knowledge learned in one setting and apply it appropriately in a different setting” (Brandt, 1993, p. 3).

In recent years, a number of researchers and education reformers have worked to define student understanding and to identify strategies that teachers can use to help students acquire the skills of understanding. …”teachers must learn a new and challenging style of teaching information and concepts, while at the same time addressing the widely varying needs and learning styles of students in the classroom”.

What is Understanding?

We use the words understand and understanding in varied ways. One dictionary definition of understand is “to achieve a grasp of the nature, significance, or explanation of something.” Definitions of understanding include “the capacity to apprehend general relations of particulars,” and “the power to make experience intelligible by applying concepts and categories” (Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 2002).

Facets of Understanding & Key Questions

Facet 1: Explanation
Students can provide sophisticated and apt explanations and theories, which provide knowledgeable and justified accounts of events, actions, and ideas.

* Why is that so?
* How can that be explained?
* How can that be proven?
* To what is this connected?
* How does it work?
* What is implied?

Facet 2: Interpretation
Students create meaning in what they learn.

* What does it mean?
* Why does it matter?
* What of it?
* What does it illustrate or illuminate in human experience?
* How does it relate to me?
* What makes sense?

Facet 3: Application
Students gain the ability to use knowledge effectively in new situations and diverse contexts.

* How and where can we use this knowledge, skill, or process?
* How should my thinking and action be modified to meet the demands of this particular situation?

Facet 4: Perspective
Students can see critical and insightful points of view.

* From whose point of view?
* From which vantage point?
* What is assumed or tacit that needs to be made explicit and considered?
* What is justified or warranted?
* Is there adequate evidence?
* Is it reasonable?
* What are the strengths or weaknesses of the idea?
* Is it plausible?
* What are its limits? So what?

Facet 5: Empathy
Students have the ability to get inside another person’s feelings and worldview.

* How does it seem to you?
* What do they see that I don’t?
* What do I need to experience if I am to understand?
* What was the artist or performer feeling, seeing, and trying to make me feel and see?

Facet 6: Self-Knowledge
Self-knowledge includes the wisdom to know one’s ignorance and how one’s patterns of thought and action inform as well as prejudice understanding.

* How does who I am shape my views?
* What are the limits of my understanding?
* What are my blind spots?
* What am I prone to misunderstand because of prejudice, habit, or style?

The Teaching for Understanding Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (Blythe & Perkins, 1998) developed a definition of understanding that it calls the performance perspective. In this view, “understanding is a matter of being able to do a variety of thought-provoking things with a topic, such as explaining, finding evidence in examples, generalizing, applying, making analogies, and representing the topic in new ways” (p. 12).

Mr. Mc Neal teaches Jete in Edinburgh, Scotland

In each of the REACH studies, teaching for understanding included aspects of both curriculum design and delivery of instructional units. Curriculum unit design is linked to several guiding principles of instruction for teaching for understanding. These principles reflect a convergence of social, cognitive, and special education research around how understanding develops. They include the following:

1. Authentic tasks
Instruction designed around authentic tasks helps students become fully engaged in learning and developing an understanding of content. Authentic tasks have three key characteristics. First, they engage students in constructing knowledge by integrating preexisting knowledge with new information. Activities that promote such integration include formulating questions, seeking information, and synthesizing information. Second, the tasks employed should be tailored to each content area to help students understand major ideas. Finally, the tasks should have real-life relevance and provide a basis for understanding issues and problems encountered outside of school.

2. Opportunities to build cognitive strategies
Strategies for upper elementary and middle school students range from more basic skills such as organizing materials and correcting spelling to higher level skills like editing the content of a class paper for coherence, breaking down a math problem into its elements, and writing persuasively. It is possible to teach cognitive strategies either through explicit instruction or by modeling and encouraging use of these strategies within a subject area.

3. Learning that is socially mediated
Learning and understanding are enhanced when students are able to interact constructively with one another in building and integrating new knowledge. Morocco suggests several ways that teachers can support socially mediated learning: (a) ensure shared ownership of the learning activity; (b) encourage students to make their thinking visible to each other through visual representations or dramatization; and (c) select problems and materials that allow for a range of perspectives.

4. Engagement in constructive conversation
Students can best engage in constructive conversation when they are able to express their own ideas and questions and listen to and integrate the perspectives of others into their own thinking. Teachers can encourage constructive conversation by maintaining a focus on a theme, allowing time for significant discussion, and responding thoughtfully to the content of students’ comments in class.

A unit should be organized around a set of overarching goals related to understanding particular ideas and concepts in a subject area. These goals might encompass several months of work. The unit addresses these large goals through a specific unit topic and unit-specific goals related to that topic. The unit includes a set of instructional opportunities—authentic tasks that encourage students to actively construct knowledge through experience. These activities engage students in learning with one another and participating in conversations that encourage them to express ideas, pose questions, and synthesize information. Individual support practices make the activities accessible for students with a range of abilities and individual learning needs. One frequent source of support is instruction in the ways of thinking and learning (cognitive strategies) that are important within a content domain.

Note: From “Teaching for understanding with students with disabilities: New directions for research on access to the general education curriculum,” by C. C. Morocco, 2001, Learning Disabilities Quarterly, 24, p. 11.

Assessments take two forms: ongoing assessments of student understanding that guide the teacher in further modifying the instruction, and a culminating assessment activity that enables the student to demonstrate his or her understanding of the major skills, strategies, and concepts emphasized in the unit. These assessments are themselves authentic tasks that require students to express their understanding of important ideas in the unit.

A Framework for Teaching for Understanding

Researchers at Harvard’s Teaching for Understanding Project developed a framework that complements the approaches described above (Wiske, 1998b). Within this framework, the first step is to identify generative topics central to the subject matter, and then to organize curriculum around those topics. Generative topics are those that are considered central or important to understanding the field; can be related to present-day experiences or events; can provide a basis for progressing to the next level of instruction or understanding; are intrinsically interesting to the students and teacher; represent recurring themes in the field; and can be approached at several levels of complexity.

The second step is to develop explicit understanding goals that relate clearly to the ideas and questions that form the basis of a content area. Understanding goals answer the question, “What do you most want your students to understand by the end of their term or their year in your class?” (Wiske, p. 69). Explicit understanding goals are key to developing appropriate assessments of student learning. For example, one of the understanding goals for a biology unit with the generative topic “plants and animals” might be: “Students will understand how biologists distinguish between plants and animals.”

Third, students are engaged in performances of understanding in which they demonstrate their ability to apply their knowledge and understanding in new settings or situations. For a mathematics unit on fractions that has the understanding goal, “Students will understand U.S. standard and metric units of measurement,” a performance of understanding might include preparing a recipe using each system; creating a visual display comparing U.S. standard and metric units of measurement; and explaining to the class the advantages and disadvantages of each measurement system.

Fourth, there is perhaps a culminating event and certainly an ongoing assessment of student performances in order to measure understanding and provide the information teachers and administrators need to improve planning and instruction. Such assessments are most helpful educationally when they are frequent, use clear and public criteria related to the understanding goals, involve both students and teachers as evaluators, and result in constructive suggestions for improvement.

Performance of Understanding


Teaching for understanding promotes in-depth learning over covering a broad range of material, and applying knowledge to real-world problems over performance on short-answer quizzes. This is most likely to occur in schools that view themselves as communities of learners. It can be time consuming, and it requires teachers to present material in nontraditional ways that engage active participation from students with a wide range of learning styles and learning abilities. It requires teachers’ commitment to understanding the challenges students face in working with intellectually demanding material and to using or designing strategies that make the material accessible to a variety of learners. Ultimately, the result is well worth the effort: Students truly learn and are able to take that learning with them and use it as they make the transition into adult life.


ALPS Teaching for Understanding
Includes detailed information on teaching for understanding, projects developed by teachers (elementary through grade eight), curriculum design tools, and opportunities to communicate with other educators. Web: http://learnweb.harvard.edu/alp s/tfu

Teaching for Understanding
David Perkins, co-director of Harvard’s Project Zero from 1972 to 2000, explains why teaching for understanding is important and provides ideas for teachers. Web: http://www.pz.harvard.edu/Research/TfU.htm

Retrieved on February 6, 2011 from http://www.ncset.org/publications/viewdesc.asp?id=1309

Further Reading


Sections Excerpted from:
Teaching for Understanding By Christine D. Bremer and Catherine Cobb Morocco
National Center on Secondary Education and Transition: Research to Practice Brief Improving Secondary Education and Transition Services through Research: November 2003 • Vol. 2, Issue 4

Retrieved on February 6, 2011 from http://www.ncset.org/publications/viewdesc.asp?id=1309