5 Tips To Help Students Arrive At Their Own Understandings
y Grant Wiggins, Ed.D, Authentic Education
Arguably one of the more difficult aspects in teaching for understanding is to decide when to teach the desired understanding!
In other words, to put it as an essential pedagogical question: When should you state the Understanding and when should you engineer students to come up with it “by design”?
Whether we consider the famous example of Socrates in his Dialogues or some of the best teachers we have ever had as students, many of them had the ability to help us “discover” the understanding on the basis of their clever design groundwork, their probing, and their facilitation of discussion.
If Essential Questions frame ongoing and important inquiries about the issues and challenges in a subject, Understandings reflect importantanswers that derive from inference that we want our students to eventually “see” after seriously considering the questions. Here’s an example: The essential question, “Why is that there?”, sets up a serious and ongoing inquiry into a big idea (a very general and powerful understanding – a theory) that perhaps “geography is destiny.” As a result of exploring the question and related idea, we want students to come to specific understandings such as:
Human needs for food, work, commerce and transportation often determine where people settle and cities grow.
The geography, climate and natural resources of a region influence how people live and work there.
Notice that these specific understandings are not limited to a particular region or city. They are transferable across time and location in ways that facts are not. And if we do our job right as designers of focused activity and facilitators of discussion of implications, we can actually get students to “see” the understanding “by design” for themselves.
In other words, one of the great teacher misunderstandings is that we have to teach the understanding for understanding to occur. On the contrary, as mystery stories, movies, and (especially) video games reveal, the learner is not only perfectly capable of drawing appropriate inferences, such activity is key to increasing intellectual engagement and reducing the boredom of schooling. And ironically, the literature on student misconception reveals that in spite of clear “teaching” of big ideas, many students do not understand what they have been taught (even if they pass our quizzes).
That said, we are not advocating for a one-size-fits all approach to instruction by calling for unending discovery. On the contrary, we have all had experiences in the other direction. Sometimes we point to and say the same thing, over and over – and only on the umpteenth time does the learner say – “Oh, I see! So THAT’S what you meant!” Note the language: just because you said it a bunch of times doesn’t mean that they “see” what you mean.
An understanding has to be “seen” by the learners themselves; it has to be an “insight” that they “grasp” (or verify) with our assistance. Naïve teachers, by definition, think that understanding is transmitted like factual knowledge – as if it were obvious on first hearing (when in fact an understanding is anunobvious conclusion to novices). When you feel yourself getting frustrated as a teacher and either thinking or saying “Don’t you see this???” you can bet that you have not laid sufficient ground and facilitated enough dialogue and inquiry to put students in a position to get it.