An introduction: Teaching for Understanding
In 2016 Central Coast Grammar School began the implementation of Harvard University’s Teaching for Understanding Framework across all learning areas to support the goal of next generation teaching and learning articulated in our strategic plan.
What is Teaching for Understanding?
The Teaching for Understanding Framework was developed by Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It is a systematic research-based approach which is a simple, flexible and powerful way of re-structuring learning to focus on understanding. The framework supports students move from ‘knowing and doing’ to ‘understanding and applying’.
Understanding is more than skills and knowledge: it is the ability to grasp the principles behind ideas and to apply them in new contexts. In our rapidly changing world, it is this ability to understand and apply that matters, not how much we know. From understanding we can build knowledge.
The framework ensures that the purpose of learning – why we’re learning and why it matters – is clearly articulated in every subject, every unit and every lesson right across the school. When students question, ‘Why am I learning this?’ teachers have meaningful answers, demonstrated through relevant learning activities. This means that teachers and students are working together towards a common learning goal that guarantees every activity has purpose and student achievement is focused and monitored precisely.
The framework helps teachers consider the curriculum and identify topics, concepts and skills that are important to understand; develop understanding goals that help students focus on the critical aspects of those topics; engage students in challenging learning experiences that demonstrate their understanding; and develop effective assessment practices that deepen student understanding.
Why this unified approach to teaching and learning?
It is essential that students are able to transfer knowledge across the boundaries of subject disciplines. Similarly, they must be able to connect their learning to the real world and to understand the threads that link ideas and processes together.
Our students face a future where many traditional industries will merge and blend, where processes will evolve beyond what we know and where knowledge is readily accessible if we understand where to look and how to use it.
It is our intent to equip our students for this world: to instil in them the understandings they need to build the knowledge and skill they will require to lead rewarding lives.
Understanding and application are essential to effective learning and academic performance. The framework provides the school, our students and our teachers with a consistent approach and common language for learning.
How we are implementing it?
Over 2017, teachers have been working in collaborative teams to implement Teaching for Understanding right across the school. A conference led by our teachers shared their learning and experiences about the framework to other teachers. This approach to collegial learning – learning from the growing expertise amongst our own staff – will continue to be a focus of continuing professional development.
Thirty staff have also completed the Teaching for Understanding online course through the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Each semester a new cohort of teachers will work in teams to undertake the course and develop their understanding of the framework.
Practical tools in the classroom
The Teaching for Understanding Framework is a strategic approach to teaching and learning. However, in the classroom practical tools are still required to bridge overarching understanding goals to learning and assessment. Good thinking leads to good learning so visible thinking practices are being introduced. The introduction of ‘thinking routines’ (practical and simple strategies and key questions that deepen students' thinking) build metacognitive skills and get students in the habit of observing, analysing and questioning. Thinking routines help teachers clearly identify what students know and understand.