Taking time to design programmes for understanding

Identifying what our children need to learn is one of the most important processes within education. For the teacher this is the question they engage with as they design their teaching and learning units. By no means is this an easy task and the teacher must balance multiple factors to ensure that the programmes they design provide their students with the learning they require. Even the most effective sequence of lessons is of little value if what it sets out to teach has little importance in the lives our learners are likely to lead.

Often when we tackle the programming process we spend much of our time designing the learning experiences with which our children will engage and through which they will acquire and demonstrate new learning. We plan a sequence of activities, find or create resources, identify success criteria and plan assessments along the way and at the conclusion. This process takes a great deal of time, collaboration and a solid understanding of pedagogy. The trouble is that sometimes, we are teaching the wrong thing. Sometimes the focus of all our efforts is on learning that neither truly builds on where the child is with their learning nor drives them towards the sort of understanding they genuinely require.

One might think that the curriculum should provide us with the information we require for this task. In part it does, however looked at from another perspective we see that the curriculum serves a slightly different purpose. The typical curriculum document is a long laundry list of items which when combined into a whole represents the knowledge and skills which comprise a discipline. These parts are important and at some point they require our attention and inclusion within our plans but we should not lose sight of the fact that they are merely parts. What we require is a more conceptual approach. Our teaching should be guided by our knowledge of the understandings which will matter most to our students; of the concepts that are at the heart of our disciplines and learning areas.

Many teachers have found the answer to this challenge in an approach known as Teaching For Understanding. In this research based approach to planning learning experiences the educator is asked to begin by considering the essential understanding goals that they wish to achieve for their learners. This represents a fundamental shift in thinking and requires also that extensive time is allocated to the process of identifying and clarifying the understanding which we hope to achieve; what they are and how they will be taught and what evidence we might see to indicate we have been successful.

In Teaching for Understanding, teachers and learners focus their attention on the essential concepts within our disciplines, topics and ideas. Understanding Goals take us beyond superficial knowledge, require us to act strategically with what we know and empower us to be problem finders and solvers. Understanding Goals require learners to take a broader view, to engage with multiple outcomes and utilise knowledge and skills collectively in unique and original contexts.

"The fullest representations of humanity show people to be curious, vital, and self-motivated. At their best, they are agentic and inspired, striving to learn; extend themselves; master new skills; and apply their talents responsibly." Ryan & Deci (2000)

The Teaching for Understanding framework is the product of a five-year Harvard research program that sought to develop students’ understanding rather than simply knowing. It stresses in-depth learning and provides teachers with a language and structure for planning their curriculum and for discussing ways of promoting deep understanding with their colleagues, students and parents.

"Project Zero’s research on Teaching for Understanding helps educators to answer two essential questions: What does it mean to understand something? And what kinds of curricula, learning experiences, and assessment support students in developing understanding? The Teaching for Understanding framework that was developed through this research helps educators take students beyond the simple mastery of facts to being able to apply knowledge flexibly in unfamiliar contexts.” (PZ Website)

Teaching and learning can be aided by having a commonly shared language about learning itself (sometimes referred to as a meta-language). Through this common language teachers can discuss what it is that they are doing in planning, delivering and assessing the curriculum; teachers can discuss with students the learning process itself, and students can engage in peer conversation about their learning. Teaching For Understanding is part of the foundation of this common language of learning and is evidenced in the resultant pedagogy, planning and the students experience of learning.

Teaching for Understanding is built upon a performance perspective of understanding. "The performance perspective says, in brief, that understanding is a matter of being able to do a variety of thought-provoking things with a topic, such as explaining, finding evidence and examples, generalizing, applying, analogizing, and representing the topic in new ways.” (Blythe, 1988)

As teachers plan, a series of questions are utilised to develop four elements of a Teaching for Understanding unit as detailed below. These question ensure attention is given to identifying; what is most important for students to learn, the experiences which best scaffold this learning, how students will extend and demonstrate their developing understanding and the understandings to be achieved.

TfU Planning Guide - Questions to ask as we plan for understanding. Source - Tina Blythe

TfU Planning Guide - Questions to ask as we plan for understanding. Source - Tina Blythe

This planning process creates a learning journey that is typified by the diagram below. At the highest level teachers identify overarching understandings which are essential to the discipline or subject such as ‘Fair testing is at the heart of the scientific method’. Generative topics establish the significance of the learning and provide an indication of the scope of the unit. Essential questions are those defined by McTighe & Wiggins (2013) "as essential for students to continuously examine so as to 'come to an understanding' of key ideas and processes”. The authors of Teaching for Understanding use the term ‘Performance of Understanding’ to describe the opportunities students engage with as they develop, apply and test their understanding. Students "might acquire pieces of knowledge from books and lectures, but without the opportunity to apply that knowledge in a variety of situations with guidance from a knowledgeable coach, they will not develop understanding. Performances of understanding, or understanding performances, are the activities that give students those opportunities.” Within a Teaching for Understanding framework a series of performances of understanding serve the purposes of 'Assessment for Learning’ (Black & Wiliam, 1998) and provide the learner and their teachers with evidence of where they are with their understanding and what is required to drive their learning forward. Culminating performances of understanding are those placed at the end of a unit of learning and are those which allow learners to demonstrate their achievement towards the Unit Long Understanding Goals, understanding of the generative topic and overarching understandings.

Key elements of Generative Topics:

  • Generative topics are central to one or more domains or disciplines.

  • Generative topics are interesting to students.

  • Generative topics are interesting to the teacher.

  • Generative topics are accessible.

  • Generative topics offer opportunities for multiple connections. (Blythe, 1988)

All of this can be quite challenging at each step of the process. It requires a rethinking of what matters most and a shift to teaching in a more conceptual way. For teachers who are used to teaching an assemblage of parts, processes or blocks of knowledge this takes time to adjust to. Teaching the concept of multiplication is very different to teaching the multiplication facts or the vertical algorithm and yet students are unlikely to have the knowledge they require to understand multiplication if they do not experience it conceptually. Change is an important concept in many disciplines but it one that is often lost among a sea of examples of change. When an understanding of the concept becomes our goal we begin to seek experiences which allow our learners to engage with these in their true form instead of through proxies for them.

Einstein famously stated that “It’s not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer”. Teachers can greatly enhance the quality of outcome that they achieve with and for their students by applying this sort of advice and spending much more time in determining what their students need to understand and less time on the activities they will perform along the way.

By Nigel Coutts

Black, P & Wiliam, D (1998), Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment, School of Education, King’s College, London.

Blythe, T. (1998) The teaching for understanding guide. San Francisco, California; Jossey-Bass Publishers

Johnston, P. (2004) - Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children's Learning. Maine; Stenhouse Publishers.

McTighe, J. & Wiggins, G. (2013) Essential Questions: Opening doors to student understanding. Virginia; ASCD

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.