Understanding ‘understanding’

Aruna Sankaranarayanan

When I was in pre-university (Grade 11), I remember plodding through scores of differentiation and integration exercises. I was able to perform most problems in the textbook mechanistically and did well on tests and exams. While my procedural grasp of the exercises was fairly strong, my conceptual understanding was tenuous. As I didn’t pursue mathematics in college, my sketchy knowledge of calculus soon vaporized. Today, my understanding of basic calculus, both procedural and conceptual, is practically zilch.

If I spent two years of my life diligently doing calculus homework for hours and met the benchmarks set by exams, only to end up with no understanding whatsoever, what was the point of my calculus education? What does it mean to truly understand something? If the goal of education is to help children make sense of what we teach them, shouldn’t we parse the concept of ‘understanding’ more coherently and finely? In The Teaching for Understanding Guide, Tina Blythe and her associates, tease apart the construct of understanding. This book is the culmination of a five-year Teaching for Understanding research project, spearheaded by three eminent educationists – Howard Gardner, David Perkins and Vito Perron – to provide teachers with a framework to situate understanding in any subject or field.

Blythe et. al. acknowledge that most teachers teach with the aim of deepening students’ understanding; however, pupils often end up understanding less than what the teacher desires. They also point out that while understanding may be the primary goal of education, students have to gain other skills like mastering the mechanics of computation, spelling, constructing syntactically correct sentences, etc. However, students need to recognize the relevance of these skills, so teachers may incorporate them in exercises that reflect understanding.

Being aware of the difference between ‘knowing’ and ‘understanding’ can help teachers design activities that engender deeper thinking. Similar to educationist Benjamin Bloom’s famed taxonomy, that is used by many schools following International curricula, teachers may provide students with a gamut of exercises that require them to explain a concept, provide evidence for a position, apply what they have learned in a different context, generate analogies and examine the topic through a different lens.

Whereas a student who merely ‘knows’ a topic may be able to perform straightforward textbook exercises, understanding requires students to stretch themselves in multiple ways. Further, while students may have epiphanies now and then, when different pieces of a construct finally click together, understanding, in most instances, is a long, slow, continuous process. When students apply what is taught in original and meaningful ways, they exhibit more complex understanding.

The authors provide a four-part framework to foster understanding. First, teachers need to select generative topics that lend themselves to teaching at a deep conceptual level. Typically, generative topics need to be important to a discipline and engaging for students and the teacher. Additionally, the topics need to be supported by a variety of learning resources and contain sufficient themes for students to make meaningful linkages with their lives, both within and outside school. Most importantly, how a topic is taught determines its generativity. If a topic is to make a powerful and lasting impression on young minds, we need to spend sufficient time exploring the topic from multiple lenses.

After choosing an engrossing topic that meets the above criteria, teachers may craft understanding goals by asking themselves why they are teaching a certain topic, what significant lessons do they want students to imbibe from it and what criteria can they use to determine if students have actually understood it to a sufficient degree of depth. The goals should not be too general or rigid. While the aims should be specific, they should allow for a degree of flexibility to accommodate students’ diverse interests. Knowing their learning goals beforehand can also provide a motivational roadmap for students as they explore the various contours of a topic.

Next, teachers need to help students demonstrate performances of understanding that tie into the goals outlined. While initial performances, at the beginning of a unit or topic, may be fairly simple, performances may grow more complex as students gain a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of a topic. They can assume a variety of forms from extended essays to exhibitions to projects to presentations and require students to expand on, extrapolate from, apply and reconfigure themes and concepts. By engaging with the topic in multiple ways, we hope the exercises leave a more permanent and profound impression on students’ minds than the typical test or exam.

To gain maximally, students need specific criteria that are clearly spelled out and continual feedback that helps them further their understanding. They may also be encouraged to reflect and evaluate their own work on an ongoing basis. Focusing on a few, meaningful goals and their attainment will lead to a more fulfilling understanding than having a long checklist.

So, if you are teaching a unit on the Industrial Revolution, you may evoke student engagement by asking them to compare how the Industrial Revolution impacted men and women differently. But instead of diving straight into the lesson, asking students how their parents and grandparents handle domestic work, the significance of gender imbalances, across history and culture, may become more relevant to them. Performances of understanding at this stage could involve students interviewing grandparents and parents, and collecting data on how much time each person devotes to different types of housework. The interviews and data could then be collated and made into in-class presentations.

Following this, the class can begin to investigate how gender imbalances played out during the Industrial Revolution by referring to typical sources, like history textbooks and websites. Additionally, students may be encouraged to even explore fiction titles and movies that touch upon these themes and times. As they delve into various sources, their knowledge may be fragmented and piecemeal at first. However, as students persevere and discover more connections between disparate ideas, their understanding begins to cohere. Depending on student preferences, they may showcase their learning through different performances of understanding including an analytical essay, a poster exhibition or a play, written and enacted by students, that depicts the major themes and issues they uncovered.

If students immerse themselves in activities that encourage deep learning, they are less likely to feel they know practically nothing on a topic they have studied, even after some years have passed. However, teachers may rightfully raise two poignant points. Given that they are circumscribed by a prescribed curriculum and have limited time to complete their portions, how can they afford the luxury of time that these performances of understanding require?

These are legitimate concerns for which there are no straightforward solutions. However, if each teacher picks one generative topic from the syllabus, and tries to impart it in a more rounded and creative way, giving students a multiplicity of activities that stretch their understanding, they may find a discernible difference in the quality of student engagement and enthusiasm, not to mention understanding. And, if enough teachers do this over a period of time, perhaps, principals, educators and policy makers may awaken to the possibility of reshaping and reforming the way we educate our children. After all, shouldn’t educators be empowered to question old methods and experiment and apply different techniques if they feel it enhances the learning experience for students and teachers alike?

The writer blogs at www.arunasankaranarayanan.com and is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20 Something Should Know by Rupa Publications.

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