'Deep understanding' needs to be woven into learning's fabric

25th March 2011 at 00:00
`Action' approach can help all involved in education to `think with what they know'

Over the years, Tapestry has brought a number of the world's leading educational thinkers to Scotland. In February, it was the turn of David Perkins of Harvard's Graduate School of Education. This was not his first visit to Scotland, nor his first involvement with Tapestry, but it was the most extended. In the course of a crowded week, he gave a masterclass to nearly 300 teachers at Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall and spoke in four local authorities, from South Lanarkshire to Shetland.

The visits had a particular focus. They were concerned with what he and his colleagues call "teaching for understanding". The starting point is a belief that it is not enough to encourage children to commit a range of information to memory (often only short-term memory). They need to be able to "think with what they know" and thereby turn the knowledge to practical effect.

For several years, Tapestry has worked with WIDE World of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in order to encourage Scottish teachers to study the online course "Teaching for Understanding" which embodies this approach. For the first time this year, it is also offering "Leading for Understanding", a course that is intended to help headteachers and other staff create the kind of school in which developing understanding will be a key objective.

These courses are available anywhere, but in Scotland, Tapestry provides support meetings and materials that put them in their Scottish context. This role continues over two years to help teachers embed what they have learnt firmly into their practice.

Teaching for Understanding is, of course, highly relevant to Curriculum for Excellence. Although Scotland's development programme has many strands, it is becoming increasingly clear that deep learning is the central principle. Obviously a key feature of all successful learning, it is also a prerequisite of developing the four "capacities".

There are many possible approaches to developing depth and understanding, but Teaching for Understanding is one of the best. Many teachers feel that it offers a convenient framework within which to operate.

On his Scottish tour, David emphasised the simplicity of the basic approach. While greater experience leads to increased subtlety and sophistication, the general approach can be encapsulated in a framework of just four questions:

- What do I want learners to understand?

- What do I want them to understand about it?

- What will they do in order to come to understand it?

- How will I know that they are understanding?

This framework can be applied to virtually any area of learning, provided the focus is not too narrow and fact-based. David illustrated its flexibility with examples ranging from democracy to evolution, mytosis (cell division) to an appreciation of Picasso.

Teaching for Understanding has its own vocabulary. The broad initial description of the learning agenda is known as a "generative topic", the details of what is to be understood as "understanding goals" and the means by which understanding is acquired as "understanding performances". More prosaically, the final element is described as "ongoing assessment". The vocabulary is, in a sense, unimportant, but it can help to fix the stages of the process in the mind.

These themes are mirrored in the second course, "Leading for Understanding". It was developed when school leaders asked for help in guiding and supporting Teaching for Understanding in their institutions. While somewhat tailored to the specific needs of schools, "Leading for Understanding" offers principles that speak to virtually any organisational setting. It sees the aims of any organisation as being to get things done effectively and to develop a strong community.

The key concept is that what matters above all is the "quality of conversations"; in other words the quality of exchange of ideas and information, along with the relationships that lie behind them. In any organisation, conversations are likely to fall into some kind of pattern, because leaders will have established an ethos that encourages certain sorts of conversations but makes others difficult. Although the variety of styles is infinite, David distinguishes two extreme kinds that exert enormous influence. The "inhibitor" plays rigidly by the rules and believes that the individual is there to serve the institution. By contrast, the "facilitator" tries to work collaboratively to solve problems. It is clearly essential that senior management sets a tone that encourages the second approach.

Another vital task for leaders is to "bridge the ideaaction gap". All the quality conversations and collaboration in the world are useless if nothing happens on the ground. In the course, action projects are used to try to promote the idea that reflection is beneficial but action must follow. Participants engage in discussion and reflection but have to translate their ideas into practical action within the school. A good action plan gets things done effectively in a way that reinforces the school's strong sense of community.

After a week of travelling around Scotland with David, I am struck by the extent to which the challenges we face here are merely the local versions of these international issues. Putting understanding at the centre of learning is what Curriculum for Excellence is all about. It is also what is needed globally. Success depends on organisations that act effectively and have the cohesion needed to ensure success.

Keir Bloomer is a director of the Tapestry Partnership.

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