What’s the Use? Understanding Understanding

Over the past few years, I’ve been thinking about understanding.

At McDonogh School, many of us use Project Zero’s Teaching for Understanding framework when creating our courses, units, and lessons. As a PreK-12 institution, we are in the process of aligning our curriculum by using Wiggins and McTighe’s framework, Understanding by Design. Clearly, “understanding” means a lot to me as McDonogh School begins to fulfill the promises made in our academic strategic plan, LifeReady.

But what is understanding? I’m hoping to capture some of my thoughts here and get some clarity about a larger question that I think should follow: what is the use of an education?

That’s the big question for me: what’s the use? I think it should be the question for every teacher and every school.

I used to think understanding was simply the successful acquisition of knowledge. But I should have thought better of this. I mean, if I understood everything I was supposed to, why would my mother continue to ask me (when I was a child), “don’t you understand?” Clearly, just hearing something and having some memory of it didn’t immediately change my behavior. And yet much of education, as is increasingly clear, continues to be about the transmission of knowledge so that it may be used — where? — for tests, some vague objective called “college prep,” Jeopardy? What is the relationship between school and the whole of one’s life?

Let me be clear before I go any further. I think people do well to know things. I think that finger-tip knowledge is extremely powerful in many circumstances. I believe in liberal arts learning.

So let me head off any notion that somehow I’m in favor of not knowing things because it’s all on Google. That’s a false choice, I think, for anyone to make. What I’m in favor of is understanding — as I’ll unfold it below — as perhaps the most useful result or effect of education. So let me attempt a definition.

I start with the explanation Tina Blythe and her colleagues offer in the Teaching for Understanding guide. There, she writes, “understanding is being able to carry out a variety of action or ‘performances’ that show one’s grasp of a topic and at the same time advance it. It is being able to take knowledge and use it in new ways” (13). Okay — this makes sense. We learn something in class and then we can use this new knowledge in some new place. For sure, this gets beyond merely memorizing definitions, passage IDs from poems, algorithms, battle dates for multiple choice tests, etc. Perhaps one gets handed a new poem, say, on an essay test and is asked to explicate it, taking care to identify important figures of speech. Or a student encounters a new problem in calculus that asks her to apply what has been practiced in class and for homework.

Even better, sometimes students have “aha” moments when they recall studying the English Revolution when reading Milton in English. That can look deceptively like “interdisciplinary” learning, but if it is, I would argue that’s an accident. More on interdisciplinary learning below.

But does any of this really get to understanding? (Again, let me be clear that I think Tina Blythe and the researchers at Project Zero mean much more than what I’m suggesting in my short essay here — I hope this will become clear).

Wiggins and McTighe offer their own very useful insights on understanding. They write, “The most successful teaching begins . . . with clarity about desired learning outcomes and about the evidence that will show that learning has occurred. . . . An understanding [that results from success in these learning outcomes] is not a fact (though it may sound like one) but a ‘theory’ in the broadest sense; it is the result of inference — the developing and testing of ideas by learners, with teacher assistance, as needed — needed in an idea that seems useful and illustrative to the learner” (7, 14-15). Transfer, they go onto say, takes places when this understanding helps people “make sense of new otherwise-confusing situation” (15). Okay — this is even clearer. This knowledge just doesn’t get repeated in a slightly different form on a test (and, again, this is not what Tina Blythe is saying!); this knowledge lives as a kind of lens through which new, strange phenomena can be understood and made meaningful because it’s in reference to these inferences. One imagines a person seeing something new and unfamiliar and getting to the point where she says, “Ah, this is like . . .” That’s closer to understanding.

I think the moment I had the greatest insight in my own journey to understand understanding occurred when reading Howard Gardner’s 5 Minds for the Future. A founder of Project Zero, it’s hardly surprising that this should be, but he nevertheless adds dimensions that fill in other insights — here, Blythe’s, Wiggins’s, McTighe’s and my own emerging thoughts.

Like so many other books of this ilk (e.g. The Global Achievement Gap), 5 Minds for the Future imagines what people will need to think and be ready to behave like in an unknown world. But Gardner’s vision for what people need might seem strangely old-fashioned at first glance, but his ideas are anything but atavistic. He fully embraces our global future, the reality of AI, and the notion that successful people will learn how to learn. In some current forecasts, one hears of the world moving from a knowledge economy to a performance economy — the idea that fixed expertise in one field is no longer enough; we need to continually learn, evolve, adapt, reinvent, discard, and so on. Gardner gets all this, for sure.

Following his introduction, Gardner leads with the chapter for the first type of mind required for the world now and to come: the disciplined mind. “I believe,” he writes, “it is essential for individuals in the future to be able to think in the ways that characterize the major disciplines. . . . These forms of thinking will serve students well, no matter what profession they eventually enter” (31-32). He suggests that “knowledge of facts is a useful ornament but a fundamentally different undertaking than thinking in a discipline . . .  [for] a discipline constitutes a distinctive way of thinking about the world” (32). But isn’t thinking in a “major discipline” (i.e., maths, science, English, etc.) out of fashion? No, not if we remember that “methods should be tools, not chains” (Gardner, 42) that reduce our worldview to a purely dogged formula.

Here, in this notion of having a “distinctive way of thinking about the world,” do we get to a deeper “uncovering” (to use a UbD term) of the meaning of “understanding.” It’s not just that we can reproduce equations on a test or merely recognize alliteration, metonymy, or personification on an exam. A disciplined mind — one that works according to the framework of a particular discipline — provides a useful range of mental habits and meaning-making tools that allow one to acquire new levels of understanding and knowledge, to evaluate the significance of new phenomena (an illustration of the “critical thinking” abilities we all say we teach for), and to remind us “that no topic can be fully mastered from a single disciplinary perspective” (Gardner, 42).

Let me pull some things together. Understanding is the effect, we might say, of having studied maths, science, history, etc. If we learn how the discipline works — not merely a heap of factual knowledge — we emerge with a way of framing and making sense of all new phenomena. The good news is that, along the way, we learn the knowledge, too, for we use carefully-selected content as the means to developing disciplinary understanding. The difference with his approach to curriculum, however, is that the understandings we wish students to emerge from our classes with help us to select, in a purposeful and meaningful way, the “stuff” we think is important. In fact, we are likely to learn the content of a discipline better because it is taught with a conscious eye to the larger understandings we want students to leave with.

When I first started teaching English, I thought my job was to tell about things. I would offer my interpretation, say, of Sonnet 27 or of Great Expectations. I honestly thought this was my job. I didn’t consider much more than the thought, “everyone needs English, so this is what I’m supposed to do.” But what else was I assuming? I probably thought that knowing Shakespeare and other canonical literature was the kind of cultural literacy people needed for life or college or whatever. I examined nothing about my teaching or my assumptions of any usefulness I was providing for students. This was wrong.

When I started teaching high school, I am certain that I added “college prep” to the unconscious list of assumptions I was working from. “You will need this for college,” I’m sure I said to preempt any real challenge to getting me to think about why I was doing what I was doing.

But, you see, this isn’t teaching for understanding, and I question, more and more, whether teaching for anything other than understanding is actually very useful to anyone other than for me.

So what might be those things I teach for now? As an English teacher, I think that being able to understand that meaning is made by means of storytelling is a fundamental understanding I want students to have, for I believe that this understanding is genuinely useful to them wherever their lives take them. We make sense of the world through stories, we understand new ideas through stories, we are persuaded by stories, we persuade with stories, and we tell ourselves stories to live, cope, and thrive. It is important that we realize that everything is, on some level, a story. And if stories are made up, then they are subject to revision, critique, investigation, and deconstruction. When we really understand the way stories work — as mechanisms unto themselves, as power over us — then we can develop a strong critical stance relative to stories. And this, I think, is a responsibility of citizens in a democracy for which they are the stewards.

As a teacher in a discipline where narrative and story is at the center, my goal is in drawing clear lines connecting the work we do in the class with the world and its necessary reliance on storytelling. This is my framework, and it’s a useful one. History and maths teachers may discuss the ways in which patterns allow us to make strong predictions about the future — whether we’re anthropologists studying human behavior or engineers predicting how a structure will withstand a tsunami.

I believe that great schools teach for these larger ideas — what we may call, thanks to Wiggins & McTighe, “enduring understandings.” For it is these understandings that will likely be remembered and, more importantly, be genuinely useful when people encounter new ideas, whether in the college classroom, the board room, the operating room, or the court room. Minute bits of knowledge may be helpful but are likely not useful in the way that these rigorous frameworks are.

So what are we teaching for? If we continue to mire ourselves in AP prep, SAT prep, college prep, and so on, are we really preparing our students for life prep? After all, prepping for life does not have to be any less intellectual or rigorous than prepping for more traditional pathways after high school. Let us choose understanding.

Teaching for understanding won’t feel comfortable for people at first if they have been used to teaching for knowledge. After all, it’s much easier to test what a person has remembered than what one has really understood. To do the latter, one has to create assessments, in some sense, that look quite different from what one may have studied. An analysis of patterns in maths might be “tested” by how well students can descry the patterns and signals leading up to the English Revolution. In this way, true interdisciplinary work isn’t the pairing of two teachers from different departments working together on the same historical period (say, Romanticism in literature and history) only; it’s the ability to understanding another discipline through the lens of a different discipline (here, again, I am indebted to Gardner’s insights).

I don’t think I’m done here with writing and thinking about understanding. Indeed, you have just read — if, in fact, you have read — me in the midst of synthesizing my thoughts, trying to make sense of things, and extending my own thinking as far as I can. But I am yawning now, and so I take my leave.

But I’ll sleep a little better because I think I have a stronger answer for the question, “what’s the use?”







About kcosta380

Kevin J. Costa is the Director of The Curiosity Shop at McDonogh School (Owings Mills, Maryland), the school's Community for Teaching & Learning. He is the founding director of the school’s Institute for Shakespeare and Renaissance Studies, an interdisciplinary program that explores the plays and history of Early Modern England through a scholar/practitioner approach. Kevin is also education director for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in Baltimore, MD. He holds a PhD in English with a concentration in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, and drama, and has taught at the secondary and postsecondary levels. Kevin has trained in classical theater at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, and he was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities award to study the teaching of Shakespeare at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, where he now serves as a teaching artist for the Library’s National Teacher Corps. Active on stage and as a director with the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, he is also a proud member of the Shakespeare Theatre Association, an international organization of Shakespeare theater companies.
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2 Responses to What’s the Use? Understanding Understanding

  1. boadams1 says:

    Excellent “thinking aloud,” Kevin! Thank you for allowing your readers to see into your understanding about understanding, even as it continues to develop!


  2. kcosta380 says:

    Thanks, Bo! See you soon!


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