TEACHING
FOR UNDERSTANDING
David
Perkins
American Educator: The Professional Journal of the American Federation
of Teachers; v17 n3, pp. 8,2835, Fall 1993.
In a small
town near Boston, a teacher of mathematics asks his students
to design the floor plan of a community center, including dance
areas, a place for a band, and other elements. Why? Because
the floor plan involves several geometric shapes and a prescribed
floor area. The students must use what they have studied about
area to make a suitable plan.
In a city
not far away, a teacher asks students to identify a time in
their lives when they had been treated unjustly and a time
when they had treated someone else unjustly. Why? Because the
students will soon start reading works of literature, including
To Kill a Mockingbird, that deal with issues of justice and
who determines it. Making connections with students' own lives
is to be a theme throughout. In a classroom in the Midwest,
a student, using his own drawings explains to a small group
of peers how a certain predatory beetle mimics ants in order
to invade their nests and eat their eggs. Why? Each student
has an individual teaching responsibility for the group. Learning
to teach one another develops secure comprehension of their
topics (Brown, et al., in press). In an elementary school in
Arizona, students studying ancient Egypt produce a National
Enquirer style, fourpage tabloid call King Tut's Chronicle.
Headlines tease "Cleo in Trouble Once Again?" Why? The format
motivates the students and leads them to synthesize and represent
what they are learning (Fiske, 1991, pp. 1578).
Quirky, perhaps,
by the measure of traditional educational practice, such episodes
are not common in American classrooms. Neither are they rare.
The first two examples happen to reflect the work of teachers
collaborating with my colleagues and me in studies of teaching
for understanding. The second two are drawn from an increasingly
rich and varied literature. Anyone alert to current trends
in teaching practice will not be surprised. These cases illustrate
a growing effort to engage students more deeply and thoughtfully
in subjectmatter learning. Connections are sought between
students' lives and the subject matter, between principles
and practice, between the past and the present. Students are
asked to think through concepts and situations, rather than
memorize and give back on the quiz.
These days
it seems oldfashioned to speak of bringing an apple to the
teacher. But each of these teachers deserves an apple. They
are stepping well beyond what most school boards, principals,
and parents normally require of teachers. They are teaching
for understanding. They want more from their students than
remembering the formula for the area of a trapezoid, or three
key kinds of camouflage, or the date of King Tut's reign, or
the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. They want students to
understand what they are learning, not just to know about it.
Wouldn't
it be nice to offer the same apple to all teachers in all schools?
. . . an apple for education altogether. However, teaching
for understanding is not such an easy enterprise in many educational
settings. Nor is it always welcome. Teaching for understanding?
. . . the phrase has a nice sensible ring to it: Nice . . .
but is it necessary?
Yes. It is
absolutely necessary to achieve the most basic goal of education:
preparing students for further learning and more effective
functioning in their lives. In the paragraphs and pages to
come, I argue that teaching for understanding amounts to a
central element of any reasonable program of education. Moreover,
once we pool insights from the worlds of research and from
educational practice, we understand enough about both the nature
of understanding and how people learn for understanding to
support a concerted and committed effort to teach for understanding.
WHY EDUCATE
FOR UNDERSTANDING?
Knowledge
and skill have traditionally been the mainstays of American
education. We want students to be knowledgeable about history,
science, geography, and so on. We want students to be skillful
in the routines of arithmetic, the craft of writing, the use
of foreign languages. Achieving this is not easy, but we work
hard at it.
So with knowledge
and skill deserving plenty of concern and getting plenty of
attention, why pursue understanding? While there are several
reasons, one stands out: Knowledge and skill in themselves
do not guarantee understanding. People can acquire knowledge
and routine skills without understanding their basis or when
to use them. And, by and large, knowledge and skills that are
not understood do students little good! What use can students
make of the history or mathematics they have learned unless
they have understood it?
In the long
term, education must aim for active use of knowledge and skill
(Perkins, 1992). Students garner knowledge and skill in schools
so that they can put them to workin professional rolesscientist,
engineer, designer, doctor, businessperson, writer artist,
musicianand in lay rolescitizen, voter, parentthat require
appreciation, understanding, and judgment. Yet rote knowledge
generally defies active use, and routine skills often serve
poorly because students do not understand when to use them.
In short, we must teach for understanding in order to realize
the longterm payoffs of education.
But maybe
there is nothing that needs to be done. "If it ain't broke,
don't fix it." Perhaps students understand quite well the knowledge
and skills they are acquiring.
Unfortunately,
research says otherwise. For instance, studies of students'
understanding of science and mathematics reveal numerous and
persistent shortfalls. Misconceptions in science range from
youngsters' confusions about whether the Earth is flat or in
just what way it is round, to college students' misconceptions
about Newton's laws (e.g., Clement, 1982, 1983; McCloskey,
1983; Nussbaum, 1985). Misunderstandings in mathematics include
diverse "malrules," where students overgeneralize rules for
one operation and carry them over inappropriately to another;
difficulties in the use of ratios and proportions; confusion
about what algebraic equations really mean, and more (e.g.,
Behr, Lesh, Post, and Silver, 1983; Clement, Lochhead and Monk,
1981; Lochhead and Mestre, 1988; Resnick, 1987, 1992).
Although
the humanistic subject matters might appear on the surface
less subject to misunderstanding than the technically challenging
science and mathematics, again research reveals that this is
not true. For instance, studies of students' reading abilities
show that, while they can read the words, they have difficulty
interpreting and making inferences from what they have read.
Studies of writing show that most students experience little
success with formulating cogent viewpoints well supportcd by
arguments (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 1981).
Indeed, students tend to write essays in a mode Bereiter and
Scardamalia (1985) call "knowledge telling," simply writing
out paragraph by paragraph what they know about a topic rather
than finding and expressing a viewpoint.
Examinations
of students' understanding of history reveal that they suffer
from problems such as "presentism"
and "localism" (Carretero, Pozo, and Asensio, 1989; Shelmit,
1980). For instance, students pondering Truman's decision to
drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima often are severely critical
because of more recent history. Suffering from "presentism,"
they have difficulty projecting themselves into the era and pondering
the issue in terms of what Truman knew at the time. Yet such
shifts of perspective are essential for understanding historyand
indeed for understanding other nations, cultures, and ethnic
groups today. Moreover, Gardner (1991) argues that students'
understanding of the humanistic subject matters is plagued by
a number of stereotypesfor instance those concerning racial,
sexual, and ethnic identitythat amount to misunderstandings
of the human condition in its variety.
So understanding
is "broke"
far more often than we can reasonably tolerate. Moreover, we
can do something about it. The time is ripe. Cognitive science,
educational psychology, and practical experience with teachers
and students put us in a position to teach for understandingand
to teach teachers to teach for understanding (Gardner, 1991;
Perkins, 1986, 1992). As the following sections argue, today,
more than ever before, teaching for understanding is an approachable
agenda for education.
WHAT IS
UNDERSTANDING?
At the heart
of teaching for understanding lies a very basic question: What
is understanding? Ponder this query for a moment and you will
realize that good answers are not obvious. To draw a comparison,
we all have a reasonable conception of what knowing is. When
a student knows something, the student can bring it forth upon
calltell us the knowledge or demonstrate the skill. But understanding
something is a more subtle matter. A student might be able
to regurgitate reams of facts and demonstrate routine skills
with very little understanding. Somehow, understanding goes
beyond knowing. But how?
Clues can
be found in this fantasy: Imagine a snowball fight in space.
Half a dozen astronauts in free fall arrange themselves in
a circle. Each has in hand a net bag full of snowballs. At
the word "go" over their radios, each starts to fire snowballs
at the other astronauts. What will happen? What is your prediction?
If you have
some understanding of Newton's theory of motion, you may predict
that this snowball fight will not go very well. As the astronauts
fire the snowballs, they will begin to move away from one another:
Firing a snowball forward pushes an astronaut backward. Moreover,
each astronaut who fires a snowball will start to spin with
the very motion of firing, because the astronaut's arm that
hurls the snowball is well away from the astronaut's center
of gravity. It's unlikely that anyone would hit anyone else
even on the first shot, because of starting to spin, and the
astronauts would soon be too far from one another to have any
chance at all. So much for snowball fights in space.
If making
such predictions is a sign of understanding Newton's theory,
what is understanding in general? My colleagues and I at the
Harvard Graduate School of Education have analyzed the meaning
of understanding as a concept. We have examined views of understanding
in contemporary research and looked to the practices of teachers
with a knack for teaching for understanding. We have formulated
a conception of understanding consonant with these several
sources. We call it a "performance perspective"
on understanding. This perspective reflects the general spirit
of "constructivism"
prominent in contemporary theories of learning (Duffy and Jonassen,
1992) and offers a specific view of what learning for understanding
involves. This perspective helps to clarify what understanding
is and how to teach for understanding by making explicit what
has been implicit and making general what has been phrased in
more restricted ways (Gardner, 1991; Perkins, 1992).
In brief,
this performance perspective says that understanding a topic
of study is a matter of being able to perform in a variety
of thoughtdemanding ways with the topic, for instance to:
explain, muster evidence, find examples, generalize, apply
concepts, analogize, represent in a new way, and so on. Suppose
a student "knows" Newtonian physics: The student can write
down equations and apply them to three or four routine types
of textbook problems. In itself, this is not convincing evidence
that the student really understands the theory. The student
might simply be parroting the test and following memorized
routines for stock problems. But suppose the student can make
appropriate predictions about the snowball fight in space.
This goes beyond just knowing. Moreover, suppose the student
can find new examples of Newton's theory at work in everyday
experience (Why do football linemen need to be so big? So they
will have high inertia.) and make other extrapolations. The
more thoughtdemanding performances the student can display,
the more confident we would be that the student understands.
In summary,
understanding something is a matter of being able to carry
out a variety of "performances"
concerning the topicperformances like making predictions about
the snowball fight in space that show one's understanding and,
at the same time, advance it by encompassing new situations.
We call such performances "understanding performances" or "performances
of understanding".
Understanding
performances contrast with what students spend most of their
time doing. While understanding performances can be immensely
varied, by definition they must be thoughtdemanding; they
must take students beyond what they already know. Most classroom
activities are too routine to be understanding performancesspelling
drills, trueandfalse quizzes, arithmetic exercises, many
conventional essay questions, and so on. Such performances
have their importance too, of course. But they are not performances
of understanding; hence they do not do much to build understanding.
HOW CAN
STUDENTS LEARN WITH UNDERSTANDING?
Given this
performance perspective on understanding, how can students
learn with understanding? An important step toward an answer
comes from asking a related but different question: How do
you learn to roller skate? Certainly not just by reading instructions
and watching others, although these may help. Most centrally,
you learn by skating. And, if you are a good learner, not just
by idle skating, but by thoughtful skating where you pay attention
to what you are doingcapitalize on your strengths, figure
out (perhaps with the help of a coach) your weaknesses, and
work on them.
It's the
same with understanding. If understanding a topic means building
up performances of understanding around that topic, the mainstay
of learning for understanding must be actual engagement in
those performances. The learners must spend the larger part
of their time with activities that ask them to generalize,
find new examples, carry out applications, and work through
other understanding performances. And they must do so in a
thoughtful way, with appropriate feedback to help them perform
better.
Notice how
this performance view of learning for understanding contrasts
with another view one might have. It's all too easy to conceive
of learning with understanding as a matter of taking in information
with clarity. If only one listens carefully enough, then one
understands. But this idea of understanding as a matter of
clarity simply will not work Recall the example of Newton's
theory of motion; you may listen carefully to the teacher and
understand in the limited sense of following what the teacher
says as the teacher says it. But this does not mean that you
really understand in the more genuine sense of appreciating
these implications for situations the teacher did not talk
about. Learning for understanding requires not just taking
in what you hear, it requires thinking in a number of ways
with what you heard practicing and debugging your thinking
until you can make the right connections flexibly.
This becomes
an especially urgent agenda when we think about how youngsters
typically spend most of their school time and homework time.
As noted earlier, most school activities are not understanding
performances: They are one or another kind of knowledge building
or routine skill building. Knowledge building and routine skill
building are important. But, as argued earlier, if knowledge
and skills are not understood, the student cannot make good
use of them.
Moreover,
when students do tackle understanding performancesinterpreting
a poem, designing an experiment, or tracking a theme through
an historical periodthere is often little guidance as to
criteria, little feedback before the final product to help
them make it better, or few occasions to stand back and reflect
on their progress.
In summary,
typical classrooms do not give a sufficient presence to thoughtful
engagement in understanding performances. To get the understanding
we want, we need to put understanding up front. And that means
putting thoughtful engagement in performances of understanding
up front!
HOW CAN
WE TEACH FOR UNDERSTANDING?
We've looked
at learning for understanding from the standpoint of the learner.
But what does learning for understanding mean from the standpoint
of the teacher? What does teaching for understanding involve?
While teaching for understanding is not terribly hard, it is
not terribly easy, either. Teaching for understanding is not
simply another way of teaching, just as manageable as the usual
lectureexercisetest method. It involves genuinely more intricate
classroom choreography. To elaborate, here are six priorities
for teachers who teach for understanding:
1. Make
learning a longterm, thinkingcentered process.
From the
standpoint of the teacher, the message about performances of
understanding boils down to this: Teaching is less about what
the teacher does than about what the teacher gets the students
to do. The teacher must arrange for the students to think with
and about the ideas they are learning for an extended period
of time, so that they learn their way around a topic. unless
students are thinking with and about the ideas they are learning
for a while, they are not likely to build up a flexible repertoire
of performances of understanding.
Imagine,
if you will, a period of weeks or even months committed to
some rich themethe nature of life, the origin of revolutions,
the art of mathematical modeling. Imagine a group of students
engaged over time in a variety of understanding performances
focused on that topic and a few chosen goals. The students
face progressively more subtle but still accessible challenges.
At the end there may be some culminating understanding performance
such as an essay or an exhibition as in Theodore Sizer's (
1984) concept of "essential schools." Such a long term, thinkingcentered
process seems central to building students' understanding.
2. Provide
for rich ongoing assessment.
I emphasized
earlier that students need criteria, feedback, and opportunities
for reflection in order to learn performances of understanding
well. Traditionally, assessment comes at the end of a topic
and focuses on grading and accountability. These are important
functions that need to be honored in many contexts. But they
do not serve students' immediate learning needs very well.
To learn effectively, students need criteria, feedback, and
opportunities for reflection from the beginning of any sequence
of instruction (cf. Baron, 1990; Gifford and O'Connor, 1991;
Perrone, 1991b).
This means
that occasions of assessment should occur throughout the learning
process from beginning to end Sometimes they may involve feedback
from the teacher, sometimes from peers, sometimes from students'
self evaluation. Sometimes the teacher may give criteria, sometimes
engage students in defining their own criteria. While there
are many reasonable approaches to ongoing assessment, the constant
factor is the frequent focus on criteria, feedback, and reflection
throughout the learning process.
3. Support
learning with powerful representations.
Research
shows that how information is represented can influence enormously
how well that information supports understanding performances.
For instance Richard Mayer (1989) has demonstrated repeatedly
that what he terms "conceptual models"usually in the form
of diagrams with accompanying story lines carefully crafted
according to several principlescan help students to solve
nonroutine problems that ask them to apply new ideas in unexpected
ways. For another example, computer environments that show
objects moving in frictionless Newtonian ways we rarely encounter
in the world can help students understand what Newton's laws
really say about the way objects move (White, 1984). For yet
another example, wellchosen analogies often serve to illuminate
concepts in science, history, English, and other domains (e.g.
Brown, 1989; Clement, 1991; Royer and Cable, 1976).
Many of the
conventional representations employed in schoolingfor instance,
formal dictionary definitions of concepts or formal notational
representations as in Ohm's law, I = E/Rin themselves leave
students confused or only narrowly informed (Perkins and Unger,
in press). The teacher teaching for understanding needs to
add more imagistic, intuitive, and evocative representations
to support students' understanding performances. Besides supplying
powerful representations, teachers can often ask students to
construct their own representations, an understanding performance
in itself.
4. Pay
heed to developmental factors.
The theory
devised by the seminal developmental psychologist Jean Piaget
averred that children's understanding was limited by the general
schemata they had evolved. For instance, children who had not
attained "formal operations" would find certain concepts inaccessiblenotions
of control of variables and formal proof, for example (Inhelder
and Piaget, 1958). Many student teachers today still learn
this scheme and come to believe that fundamental aspects of
reasoning and understanding are lost on children until late
adolescence. They are unaware that 30 years of research have
forced fundamental revisions in the Piagetian conception. Again
and again, studies have shown that, under supportive conditions,
children can understand much more than was thought much earlier
than was thought.
The "neoPiagetian" theories
of Robbie Case (1985), Kurt Fischer (1980), and others offer
a better picture of intellectual development. Understanding
complex concepts may often depend on what Case calls a "central
conceptual structure," i.e., certain patterns of quantitative
organization, narrative structure, and more that cut across
disciplines (Case, 1992). The right kind of instruction can
help learners to attain these central conceptual structures.
More broadly, considerable developmental research shows that
complexity is a critical variable. For several reasons, younger
children cannot readily understand concepts that involve two
or three sources of variation at once, as in concepts such
as balance, density, or pressure (Case, 1985, 1992; Fischer,
1980).
The picture
of intellectual development emerging today is less constrained,
more nuanced, and ultimately more optimistic regarding the
prospects of education.
Teachers
teaching for understanding do well to bear in mind factors
like complexity, but without rigid conceptions of what students
can and cannot learn at certain ages.
5. Induct
students into the discipline.
Analyses
of understanding emphasize that concepts and principles in
a discipline are not understood in isolation (Perkins, 1992;
Perkins and Simmons, 1988; Schwab, 1978). Grasping what a concept
or principle means depends in considerable part on recognizing
how it functions within the discipline. And this in turn requires
developing a sense of how the discipline works as a system
of thought. For example, all disciplines have ways of testing
claims and mustering proofbut the way that's done is often
quite different from discipline to discipline. In science,
experiments can be conducted, but in history evidence must
be mined from the historical record. In literature, we look
to the text for evidence of an interpretation, but in mathematics
we justify a theorem by formal deduction from the givens.
Conventional
teaching introduces students to plenty of facts, concepts,
and routines from a discipline such as mathematics, English,
or history. But it typically does much less to awaken students
to the way the discipline workshow one justifies, explains,
solves problems, and manages inquiry within the discipline.
Yet in just such patterns of thinking lie the performances
of understanding that make up what it is to understand those
facts, concepts, and routines in a rich and generative way.
Accordingly, the teacher teaching for understanding needs to
undertake an extended mission of explicit consciousness raising
about the structure and logic of the disciplines taught.
6. Teach
for transfer.
Research
shows that very often students do not carry over facts and
principles they acquire in one context into other contexts.
They fail to use in science class or at the supermarket the
math they learned in math class. They fail to apply the writing
skills that they mastered in English on a history essay. Knowledge
tends to get glued to the narrow circumstances of initial acquisition.
If we want transfer of learning from studentsand we certainly
do, because we want them to be putting to work in diverse settings
the understandings they acquirewe need to teach explicitly
for transfer, helping students to make the connections they
otherwise might not make, and helping them to cultivate mental
habits of connectionmaking (Brown, 1989; Perkins and Salomon,
1988; Salomon and Perkins, 1989).
Teaching
for transfer is an agenda closely allied to teaching for understanding.
Indeed, an understanding performance virtually by definition
requires a modicum of transfer, because it asks the learner
to go beyond the information given, tackling some task of justification,
explanation, examplefinding or the like that reaches further
than anything in the textbook or the lecture. Moreover, many
understanding performances transcend the boundaries of the
topic, the discipline, or the class roomapplying school math
to stock market figures or perspectives on history to casting
your vote in the current election. Teachers teaching for a
full and rich understanding need to include understanding performances
that reach well beyond the obvious and conventional boundaries
of the topic.
Certainly
much more can be said about the art and craft of teaching for
understanding. However, this may suffice to make the case that
plenty can be done. Teachers need not feel paralyzed for lack
of means. On the contrary, a plethora of classroom moves suggest
themselves in service of building students' understanding.
The teacher who makes learning thinkingcentered, arranges
for rich ongoing assessment, supports learning with powerful
representations, pays heed to developmental factors, inducts
students into the disciplines taught, and teaches for transfer
far and wide has mobilized a powerful armamentum for building
students' understanding.
WHAT SHOULD
WE TEACH FOR UNDERSTANDING?
Much can
be said about how to teach for understanding. But the "how" risks
defining a hollow enterprise without dedicated attention to
the "what"what's most worth students' efforts to understand?
A while ago
I found myself musing on this question: "When was the last
time I solved a quadratic equation?"
Not your everyday reminiscence, but a reasonable query for me.
Mathematics figured prominently in my precollege education, I
took a technical doctoral degree, I pursue the technical profession
of cognitive psychology and education, and occasionally I use
technical mathematies, mostly statistics. However, it's been
a number of years since I've solved a quadratic equation.
My math teacher
in high schoola very good teacherspent significant time
teaching me and the rest of the class about quadratic equations.
Almost everyone I know today learned how to handle quadratic
equations at some point. Yet most of these folks seem to have
had little use for them lately. Most have probably forgotten
what they once knew about them.
The problem
is, for students not headed in certain technical directions,
quadratic equations are a poor investment in understanding.
And the problem is much larger than quadratic equations. A
good deal of the typical curriculum does not connectnot to
practical applications, nor to personal insights, nor to much
of anything else. It's not the kind of knowledge that would
connect. Or it's not taught in a way that would help learners
to make connections. We suffer from a massive problem of "quadratic
education."
What's needed
is a connected rather than a disconnected curriculum, a curriculum
full of knowledge of the right kind to connect richly to future
insights and applications (Perkins, 1986; Perrone, 1991a).
The great American philosopher and educator John Dewey (1916)
had something like this in mind when he wrote of "generative
knowledge." He wanted education to emphasize knowledge with
rich ramifications in the lives of learners. Knowledge worth
understanding.
WHAT IS
GENERATIVE KNOWLEDGE?
What does
generative knowledge look like (cf. Perkins, 1986, 1992; Perrone,
1991a)? Consider a cluster of mathematics concepts rather different
from quadratic equations. Consider probability and statistics.
The conventional precollege curriculum pays little attention
to probability and statistics. Yet statistical information
is commonplace in newspapers, magazines, and even newscasts.
Probabilistic considerations figure in many common areas of
life, for instance making informed decisions about medical
treatment. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
(1989) urges more attention to probability and statistics in
the standards established a few years ago. Faced with a forced
choice, one might do well to teach probability and statistics
for understanding instead of quadratic equations for understanding.
It's knowledge that connects!
Or for instance,
early this year, the Boston Globe published a series on "the
roots of ethnic hatred," the psychology and sociology of why
ethnic groups from Northern Ireland to Bosnia to South Africa
are so often and so persistently at one another's throats.
It turns out that a good deal is known about the causes and
dynamics of ethnic hatred. To teach social studies for understanding,
one might teach about the roots of ethnic hatred instead of
the French Revolution. Or one might teach the French Revolution
through the lens of the roots of ethnic hatred. It's knowledge
that connects!
TAPPING
TEACHERS' WISDOM
Where are
ideas for the knowledge in this "connected curriculum" to come
from? One rich source is teachers. In some recent meetings
and workshops, my colleagues and I have been exploring with
teachers some of their ideas about generative knowledge. The
question was this: "What new topic could I teach, or what spin
could I put on a topic I already teach, to make it genuinely
generative? To offer something that connects richly to the
subject matter, to youngsters' concerns, to recurring opportunities
for insight or application?"
We heard
some wonderful ideas. Here is a sample:
 What
is a living thing? Most of the universe is dead matter,
with a few precious enclaves of life. But what is life
in its essence? Are viruses alive? What about computer
viruses (some argue that they are)? What about crystals?
If they are not, why not?
 Civil
disobedience. This theme connects to adolescents' concerns
with rules and justice, to episodes of civil disobedience
in history and literature, and to one's role as a responsible
citizen in a nation, community, or, for that matter, a
school.
 RAP:
ratio and proportion. Research shows that many students
have a poor grasp of this very central concept, a concept
that, like statistics and probability, comes up all the
time. Dull? Not necessarily. The teachers who suggested
this pointed out many surprising situations where ratio
and proportion enterin poetry, music and musical notation,
diet, sports statistics, and so on.
 Whose
history? It's been said that history gets written by
the victors. This theme addresses pointblank how accounts
of history get shaped by those who write it the victors,
sometimes the dissidents, and those with other special
interests.
These examples
drawn from teachers should persuade us that many teachers have
excellent intuitions about generative knowledge.
POWERFUL
CONCEPTUAL SYSTEMS
It's important
not to mix up generative knowledge with what's simply fun or
doggedly practical. We might think of the most generative knowledge
as a matter of powerful conceptual systems, systems of concepts
and examples that yield insight and implications in many circumstances.
Look back at the topics listed earlier. Yes, they can be read
as particular pieces of subject matter knowledge. But every
one also is a powerful conceptual system. Probability and statistics
offer a window on chance and trends in the world; the roots
of ethnic hatred reveal the dynamics of rivalry and prejudice
at any level from neighborhoods to nations; the nature of life
becomes a more and more central issue in this era of testtube
babies and recombinant DNA engineering; civil disobedience
involves a subtle pattern of relations between law, justice,
and responsibility; ratio and proportion are fundamental modes
of description; the "whose history?" question basically deals
with the central human phenomenon of pointofview.
If much of
what we taught highlighted powerful conceptual systems, there
is every reason to think that youngsters would retain more,
understand more, and use more of what they learned. In summary,
teaching for understanding is much more than a matter of methodof
engaging students in understanding performances with frequent
rich feedback, powerful representations, and so on. Besides
method, it is also a matter of contentthoughtful selection
of content that proves genuinely generative for students. If
we teach within and across subject matters in ways that highlight
powerful conceptual systems, we will have a "connected curriculum"one
that equips and empowers learners for the complex and challenging
future they face.
WHAT NEEDS
TO BE DONE?
At the outset,
I called teaching for understanding an apple for education.
It's the apple, I've argued, that education needs. The apple
of course is the traditional JudeoChristian symbol of knowledge
and understanding. It was Eden's apple that got us into trouble
in the first place, and the trouble with apples continues.
Our efforts to serve up to students the apple of plain old
knowledge seems to be serving them poorly.
What it all
comes down to is this. Schools are providing the wrong apple.
The apple of knowledge is not the apple that truly nourishes.
What we need is the apple of understanding (which of course
includes the requisite knowledge).
So what should
be done? What does it take to organize education around the
apple of understanding rather than the apple of knowledge?
What energies must we muster in what direction to move toward
a more committed and pervasive pedagogy of understanding?
Although
the problem is complex, we have been exploring pathways toward
such a pedagogy in collaboration with a number of teachers.
An early discovery encouraged our efforts. We found that nearly
every teacher could testify to the importance of the goal.
Teachers are all too aware that their students often do not
understand key concepts in science, periods of history, works
of literature, and so on, nearly as well as they might. And
most teachers are concerned about teaching for understanding.
They strive to explain clearly. They look for opportunities
to clarify. From time to time, they pose openended tasks such
as planning an experiment, interpreting a poem, or critiquing
television commercials that call for and build understanding.
Our teacher
colleagues also helped us to realize that, in most settings,
understanding was only one of many agendas. While concerned
about teaching for understanding, most teachers distribute
their effort more or less evenly over that and a number of
other objectives. Relatedly, the institutions within which
teachers work and the tests they prepare their students for
often offer little support for the enterprise of teaching for
understanding. In other words, as Theodore Sizer and many others
have urged in recent years, better education calls for a simplification
of agendas and a deepened emphasis on understanding (Sizer,
1984). This in turn demands some restructuring of priorities
(as expressed by school boards, parents, and mandated tests)
and of schedules and curricula that work against teaching for
understanding.
Finally,
our teacher colleagues help us see that teaching for understanding
in a concerted and committed way calls for a depth of technique
that most teachers' initial training and ensuing experiences
have not provided. Thinking of instruction in terms of performances
of understanding, arranging ongoing assessment, tapping the
potential of powerful representationsthese have a very limited
presence in preservice and inservice teacher development.
So a second strand of any effort to make a pedagogy of understanding
real must be to help teachers acquire such techniques.
Fortunately,
many teachers are already far along the way toward teaching
for understanding, without any help from cognitive psychologists
or educational researchers. Indeed, some of our most interesting
work on teaching for understanding has been with teachers who
already do much of what the framework that we are developing
advocates. They are pleased to find that the framework validates
their work. And they tell us that the framework gives them
a more precise language and philosophy. It helps them to deepen
their commitment and sharpen the focus of their efforts.
Frankly,
we should all be suspicious if the kind of teaching advocated
under the banner of teaching for understanding came as a surprise
to most teachers. Instead it should look familiar, a bigger
and juicier apple: "Yes, that's the kind of teaching I like
to doand sometimes do." Teaching for understanding does not
aim at radical burnthebridges innovation, just more and better
versions of the best we usually see.
The ideas
discussed here were developed with support from the Spencer
Foundation for research on teaching for understanding and from
the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for research
on thinking, for which I am grateful. Many of the ideas reflect
collaborative work with several good colleagues. I thank Rebecca
Simmons, one of those colleagues, for her helpful comments
on a draft of this paper.D. P.
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David Perkins
is codirector of Harvard Project Zero, a research center for
cognitive development, and senior research associate at the
Harvard Graduate School of Education. His most recent book
is Smart Schools: From Training Memories to Educating Minds
(The Free Press, 1992). This article is based on the Elam Lecture
he delivered at the 1993 Conference of The Educational Press
Association of America.
Reprinted with
permission from the Fall 1993 issue of the AMERICAN EDUCATOR, the
quarterly journal of the American Federation of Teachers.
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