A cardinal principle in aiming at understanding is that understanding requires different pedagogy than acquisition of knowledge and skill. Knowledge and skills are best developed by direct instruction and reinforcement if we want recall and fluency. Understanding, however, involves something beyond mere acquisition for later straightforward use. To understand, students must do something with, adapt, and sometimes question what they (think they) know. They have to think and rethink. They must be required to draw inferences and come to realizations, try performing with that understanding, and draw further inferences from what works, what doesn’t, when, and why. The student doesn’t have to merely “know” F=ma or that the Federalists predicted the health-care debate, they have to “realize” the point of the knowledge, its power, and its limits in order to transfer it flexibly and fluently in the future.
Thus, to achieve understanding as an educator, you have to help students “by design” come to realizations that they own and appreciate as insightful. If you don’t, if you just “teach” the understandings you aim to have them possess, you will fail – no matter how “good” the teaching. Indeed, this is the key to grasping the meaning of research on student misconception: misunderstandings persist in the face of pedagogy that doesn’t elicit and challenge student meanings and their meaning-making process. Teachers thus need to be crystal-clear in their own mind which of their goals involve knowledge and which involve understanding and treat each goal accordingly.
The temptation to teach understandings is great. It is arguably the Achilles Heel of all teachers. Indeed, we are prone to “teach” too much as our title – Teacher, Professor – indicates. We are convinced that we can effectively teach this or that understanding so that they grasp and appreciate it. Furthermore, we are in constant fear of losing time and not getting through all the content to be covered. So, we think direct teaching of understanding is both efficient and effective.
Alas, it almost never works in the end. If you doubt me, just switch gears and think of parenting. How often have you had a child “learn” the understanding you “taught” the first or even the fourth time about, say, peer pressure, time management or wise use of allowance money? I didn’t think so. Indeed, a little reflection on the humility and patience required by parenting would be a useful antidote to the naivete of thinking you can “cover” all that matters in your courses and cause lasting and useful understanding.
No, there is no way around it. If you want students to have meaningful learning experiences that culminate in transferable insight and know-how, then you have to lose time to gain it. You have to slow down the teaching to speed up the learning. You have to engineer understanding by design.
Let me offer a concrete example from when I taught English of how to get students to draw inferences and come to realizations without “wasting” time even though it takes more time than just “teaching” the readings. Here are the texts: The Hans C. Andersen story “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” and Oedipus The King by Sophocles.
Ancient texts and fairy tales! The design challenge is thus clear: we need to make them both understood and meaningful.  In other words, we have to treat the texts as having something to say and something to ponder to teenagers now. So, a good essential question is key. Here is the one I successfully used for years: Who sees and who is blind? The question is asked and re-asked for each text and across texts, and students also know from the start of the unit that it is the final essay prompt. Already, then, the work is somewhat more meaningful and understanding-focused. I have made clear that the texts serve the question, and on its face the question is interesting (or soon will be).
The first activity involves an in-class reading from Winnie the Pooh where Winnie and Piglet hunt (or think they are hunting) Woozles. As the footprints grow in number they conclude that more and more Woozles are in the area – only to learn (from Christopher Robin in the tree above them) that they have been walking in circles. A lively discussion ensues about illusions and delusions, and especially Piglet’s fear and running away. “What would have happened if Christopher Robin had not shouted to them below from his perch in the tree?” I ask at some point. Further lively discussion ensures about how you escape or don’t escape “blindness”: do you need someone else to escape your own blindness?
I then ask students in small groups to recall times in history where we were “certain” that something was the case, only to have it turn out that we were deluded – and to offer some hypotheses as to why this perpetually happens. Then, we generalize from all the group answers. The first writing assignment for homework requires students to reflect on the question in terms of their own experience: write about a time when you were completely “blind” to some truth even though many others saw the truth and were unsuccessful in getting you to see it. (A later assignment asks them to switch perspective: when did you see something as clear as day that another person remained blind to?)
I trust you’ll agree with me that the question is now likely owned and appreciated by students. We “lost” 2 days of “teaching” the core texts but gained immeasurable motivation and meaning.
The key pedagogical challenge is now to get students to see that the important texts we will be reading are worth reading even though they are challenging. Namely, my job is to get them to see the texts and the struggle to understand them as worth the effort as we pursue a question that is gaining their interest. For a while we will lose sight of the question (be blind to it!) as we work to follow the text. The best teaching, however, keeps the question in view often enough that the slog seems worth it. Indeed, a few students grasp that their unwillingness to read the texts and see possible merit in them is a form of blindness: this is a key moment when it happens.
One of the specific hurdles in the unit is to see how well I can engineer students to realize, for example, that the “blind” prophet in Oedipus Rex “sees” better than the wily and smart Oedipus. Many times in my classes, all I need to do is to remind students of the essential question when we get to the part where Teiresias angrily leaves unwilling to share what he knows about the prophecy, and students excitedly link it to the question. Even better, a number of students over the years spontaneously applied the question to Teiresias: why, if he is such a great prophet, did he get so angry since he knew the curse and its implications? What does the scene say about blindness and anger? When students spontaneously transfer meanings, you can be sure you are on the right track; when they fail to bring up past discussions, experiences, and readings, you can be sure that the work is not yet meaningful.)
Sequence matters, too. In terms of Oedipus, having already read The Emperor’s New Clothes, even students struggling to read every word of the text easily start to make generalizations about blindness in and because of important people, linking it to stories in our own time with at most minor prompting from me. (In today’s news, we have the Penn State affair as a perfect illustration of the issues.) All I need do is point to some key passages in the text, remind them of earlier points they made about this or other texts, and highlight links to other illustrative current and past examples of the issue.
I could probably “cover” the play in four days of assigned readings and lecture-discussion. In my way of doing it, it takes 2 weeks. But by the end, students have achieved not only great insights mostly on their own but come to appreciate the insights to be gained from an ancient text. When it really works, struggling readers want to become better readers because they start to see that texts have buried treasure in them.
Another specific challenge in the unit is to help students realize that the Allegory of the Cave not only applies to the key characters in all the readings but to themselves as learners. Indeed, when Glaucon first reacts to the depiction of the people in the cave, by saying “What a strange place, and what strange prisoners!” Socrates quickly replies “Like ourselves.” (Indeed, the allegory is introduced as a parable of “our” education and ignorance.)  Yet few students catch this reference to us: like Glaucon, they are initially “blind” to the parallel, merely fascinated with the imagery. We will want to carefully engineer in them the realization that the Cave speaks directly to their own education. Indeed, a number of students quickly puick up the idea that grades and commencement prizes are just like the phony awards in the Cave. Sometimes all it takes is a pointed question taking them back to the text: “Guys, when, precisely, does the guy stop resisting being dragged out of the cave?” Or: “Why is Socrates telling this story anyway?”
I could use the phrase “socratic seminar” to describe what I am doing here but that is to wrongly narrow the issue to technique. What matters is the aim. It doesn’t matter how much I facilitate the conversation or whether or not the discussion happens with me in a whole group or without me in small groups – or even whether we use books, movies, or experiences. We don’t describe science labs or the Case Method as socratic seminar but good labs and case studies fulfill the same function. “By design” in all cases students are led to realize, test, and verify certain inferences and their implications. What matters is that students – and their teachers! – grasp that the aim of such work and methods is meaning, not acquisition, and that the work has been designed accordingly: meaning is foreground, content is background.
Doubters should refer to the research on learning and the best college teaching, summarized by John Hattie and Ken Bain. The highest-level achievement is caused by such teaching, period. This is common sense for any of us who have had a really fine education.
We succeed as coaches of understanding if we have designed the learning – the tasks and our methods – to help learners make meaning as much as possible on their own. We don’t say we have no time for discussion, labs or cases, let me just teach you the facts – if we want engaged minds and transferable understanding. That would be as silly as saying there is not enough time for you to practice driving a car before your license test, let me instead teach you everything I know about driving.
“Coverage” is ultimately an egocentric delusion, in other words; it is a form of teacher blindness! It presumes that just because we teach it you will get it and appreciate it. All we need do to expose the blindness is look at test scores, results on assessments of misconception, and responses on student surveys to realize that we are without vision more than we realize. Who sees and who is blind?


4 Responses

  1. This was very helpful to help with my own understanding of teaching or not teaching for understanding. I agree that we need to create situations for students to make their own meaning, relevance and understanding.

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