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Children need to learn how to think;Making the Connection conference

Willis Pickard reports from the Making the Connection conference on myths needing dispelled

Myths about learning stand in the way of deeper pupils' understanding, according to the head of an internationally acclaimed United States project.

David Perkins, who runs Project Zero in the graduate school of education at Harvard University, said the myths were held by teachers as well as pupils, as he opened a conference in Glasgow last week.

One obstacle is the assumption that knowledge and skills equate with understanding. Another is pupils' belief that they understand a concept when further probing shows they do not.

Some teachers and pupils also believe that understanding is a "luxury" when attention should be directed to knowledge and skills. There is another myth that "you either get it or you do not", and there is nothing that can be done to teach understanding.

Professor Perkins, who was opening the "Making the Connection" conference on teaching and learning, co-sponsored by the TES Scotland, said that high achievers could prove incomplete learners. Because things came easily to them, they did not know what to do when they encountered a real difficulty, perhaps when confronted by a demanding concept at university.

Research under Project Zero has focused on ways of teaching understanding, which Professor Perkins defined as "flexible performance capability". He said that "the heart and soul of the learning process is thoughtful action."

Teachers should concentrate on turning their lessons into topics for action, and "if the nature of the subject doesn't lend itself, then put a spin on it."

Teachers might respond, "yes but...", instancing lack of time or lack of confidence.

Professor Perkins said that not all units of learning needed to be taught for understanding, at least initially. "We have to pick out the targets but if we want a good pay-off we do have to teach for understanding." Knowledge and skills were not being sacrificed, he claimed. Rather, understanding would help retention.

He added that his was not necessarily a "liberal agenda". It could be used to meet the demands of conservatives - advocates of textual analysis, for example - as well as progressives. Teaching for understanding was a way to tackle the curriculum, not to dictate it.

Leader, page 14

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