What is more fundamental to the work we do in schools than the concept of “understanding”? We are, after all, trying to deepen or refine our children’s understandings of the subject matter under study, right? Yet, what do we mean by the term? What do our children’s teachers—each of them—mean by the term in the context of their teaching? What do our children mean by the term? And how does any one of us know when understanding—whatever it is—has been achieved? In the next series of blog entries, we will explore the notion of understanding, trying to clarify its meaning and importance while sharing examples of what it is—and what it isn’t.
In their groundbreaking book on curriculum design entitled Understanding by Design, researchers, authors and educators Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe explore everything from their three-stage “backward design” model to the nature of understanding. Perhaps the most practical and thought-provoking chapter in the book—and certainly the one that provides an infrastructure for an understanding of understanding—is Chapter 4: The Six Facets of Understanding. Rather than positing a narrow definition, Wiggins and McTighe brilliantly map out a kind of geography of understanding:
“The word understanding has various meanings, and our usage suggests that understanding is not one achievement but several, and it is revealed through different kinds of evidence. . . .Understanding is multidimensional and complicated. There are different types of understanding, different methods of understanding, and conceptual overlap with other intellectual targets.
Because of the complexity of the issue, it makes sense to identify different (though overlapping and ideally integrated) aspects of understanding. We have developed a multifaceted view of what makes up a mature understanding, a six-sided view of the concept” (pp.82, 84).
Crucial here are two fundamental notions:  That understanding can be revealed or demonstrated in multiple ways and to greater or lesser degrees and  that all six facets are not necessarily involved in every instance of understanding; rather, the facets provide a “framework or set of criteria for designing lessons and assessments that better develop and measure understanding.” In short, students can legitimately demonstrate their understandings in a wide variety of ways AND as educators we can and must design lessons and assessments that both develop these facets and use them as criteria for determining how well our students understand what we hope they are learning.
So, what are Wiggins’ and McTighe’s six facets—their six kinds of understanding that operate in mutually reinforcing ways? While Chapter 4 of Understanding by Design offers a rich and detailed description of each facet, complete with definitions, real-world examples and curricular implications, the basic definitions provided in their glossary serve our purposes here:
• Explain: provide thorough, supported and justifiable accounts of phenomena, facts and data.
• Interpret: tell meaningful stories; offer apt translations; provide a revealing historical or personal dimension to ideas and events; make something personal or accessible through images, anecdotes, analogies or models.
• Apply: effectively use or adapt knowledge in diverse contexts.
• Have perspective: see points of view, with critical eyes and ears; see the big picture.
• Empathize: get inside, find value in what others might find odd, alien or implausible; perceive sensitively based on prior direct experience.
• Have self-knowledge: perceive the personal style, prejudices, projections and habits of mind that both shape and impede understanding; be aware of what is not understood and why it is so hard to understand. (page 343)
These six facets achieve their chief significance in the context of how they both promote and reflect transfer—more or less the holy grail of teaching and the essence of learning. As Wiggins and McTighe note, transferability is the “ability to use knowledge appropriately and fruitfully in a new or different context from that in which it was learned” (page 352). The more multifaceted our understandings are, then, the more deftly we can apply those understandings in new or novel situations. Wiggins and McTighe drive home the centrality of transfer in teaching and learning and its essential role in providing the context for the six facets of understanding when they write,
“Transfer must be the aim of all teaching in school—it is not an option—because when we teach, we can address only a relatively small sample of the entire subject matter. All teachers have said to themselves after a lesson, ‘Oh, if we only had more time! This is just a drop in the bucket.’ We can never have enough time. Transfer is our great and difficult mission because we need to put students in a position to learn far more, on their own, than they can ever learn from us” (page 44).
That’s precisely what it means to cultivate life-long learners and, as stated in our mission, “to help students develop their full potential”—especially in this brave new world of the 21st century, what Daniel Pink (author of A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future) has accurately termed “the Conceptual Age” which features a society of “creators and empathizers, of pattern recognizers and meaning makers.” This is the society for which we as educators and parents are preparing our children to take on leadership roles as adults. It's hard for me to imagine more exciting, more challenging, or more meaningful work.
Next entry: We will examine Jeanne Ormrod’s analysis, in Human Learning, of six factors that fundamentally influence the likelihood of transfer in learning.
-- Michael Ebeling, Head of Summit School
Monday, December 29, 2008
Saturday, December 6, 2008
At first blush, this posting could appear to offer a stark contrast to our Thanksgiving topic. A week ago, I was celebrating the twin gifts of parenthood and teaching. And while acknowledging the roles of parent and teacher as distinct, I also noted the following:
“In fact, teachers are able to do a better job with children in school when parents do a better job with children outside of school. In short, parents and teachers alike deal with the whole child—and have an impact on the whole child. . . . Each of these children is the center of someone’s universe. We celebrate that fact. And we’re mindful of it. That each of these children is the center of someone’s universe drives home the point that we as educators can’t support a child alone. We don’t know all that there is to know in that child’s universe. You as parents can’t support your child alone. Because a part of that universe is here at school. The good news is, together--as partners--we are able to act in the best interests of your child.”
That bridges us from last week to this week—and brings us to the topic of what Independent School psychologist, parent, writer and speaker Michael Thompson terms “The Fear Equation.” Thompson names an 800-pound gorilla in the shared space of our Parent-School Partnership:
“Parent-teacher relationships, even when good, are less than they could be because of the latent fear between the parties.”
As formal assessment and evaluation periods cycle into view, reporting documents are sent home, and parents and teachers meet about the growth and development of children, these unspoken (and often unfounded) fears can, if not understood and addressed, undermine what is possible in parent-teacher relationships—and, thereby, inadvertently limit the success of our children. Rather than skirt the issue, Thompson addresses it head on and transforms it into a powerful opportunity for parents and teachers to understand one another’s perspectives and experiences more deeply and compassionately. And in so doing, he helps establish the terms for parents and teachers to work together more effectively as advocates for the children to whom both parents and teachers are committed.
A key reality is this: Few relationships have greater bearing on the academic success of our children than the parent-teacher relationship. We must, then, seize the opportunity to approach this relationship with good-willed intention and to give it thoughtful and informed attention.
How? Thompson begins by outlining 7 sources of parental fear and 7 sources of teacher fear. I would offer that in acknowledging these sources of fear and being mindful of them in our parent-teacher interactions, parents and teachers alike can help reduce unspoken but nonetheless potentially powerful sources of anxiety in one another. And we must both lean into these sources of fear and move beyond them because our collective responsibility for the children we share must overshadow any discomfort or anxiety we might feel as adults. To move beyond these fears, we must first name them—and then be mindful of them in our interactions with one another. Thompson’s 7 sources of parental fear are:
 “Parenting is inherently difficult and no one is expert at it. . .When you sit down with your child’s teacher you are nervously aware of your amateur status.”
 “Your child-rearing mistakes are on display through your child’s behavior in ways you cannot know. . .We are all afraid that our characters are on view in the way that our children behave in school. . .and they are.”
 “Every parent is trapped by hope, love – and anxieties. Parents are so vulnerable with respect to their children. . .[I]n hav[ing] given birth to a child. . .you have opened yourself up to a lifetime of worry. You have to pace yourself. All parents are nervous; all parents are pacing themselves.”
 “In important ways, you may not know as much about your child as his or her teacher does.”
 “Teachers have immense power over children’s lives.”
 “Parents may feel trapped by and with their child’s school. . .When a parent believes that a particular teacher is not effective or kind to their child, he or she may not be able to do anything to change the situation.”
 “Parents bring their professional skills to bear on their relationships with teachers even thought they may not be helpful in the school situation. . .Even when parents know they are intimidating teachers, they cannot stop exercising their strongest muscles, the ones that make them powerful in their own professional lives.”
As educators we need to continually remind ourselves of the potential vulnerability parents can feel. And, in the process, we need to continually demonstrate a collaborative spirit and a strong sense of mutual trust—all in the best interest of the child.
Thompson identifies 7 sources of teacher fear as well:
 “Teaching, like parenting, is an inherently difficulty job: organic, hard to measure, and intensely personal.”
 “Teachers are always seen [and at times in the evening discussed around the dinner table] through the distorting eyes of children.”
 “If you teach well and effectively, you do not always get the credit.”
 “Teachers are not accorded enough respect in our culture, and it puts them at a psychological disadvantage. . .Teachers feel the loss of the culture’s regard every day and it makes them vulnerable. Individual parents can restore, for a moment at least, that respect as a basis for their relationships with teachers.”
 “Every teacher has been scarred by at least one threatening out-of-control parent.”
 “Teachers fear that parent influence with school administrators means their jobs could be at risk.”
 “Good teachers see the world through the eyes of adults and also through the eyes of children. . .Being able to think like children you teach is essential for teachers; it puts you at a disadvantage in dealing with the parents of those children.”
As parents we need to continually remind ourselves of the potential vulnerability teachers can feel. And, in the process, we need to continually demonstrate a collaborative spirit and a strong sense of mutual trust—all in the best interest of the child.
Our parent-school partnership is a relationship that we maintain in the best interests of our children. One thing we have figured out about relationships—at least those that are healthy and working well—is that the people in them are working on them: They are giving the relationship attention and they are approaching it with intention. Through this partnership that is exactly what we are trying to do: Give the parent-school relationship attention and fill it with intention—all in the interest of best supporting our children. Being mindful of one another’s sources of fear and demonstrating our mutual respect and trust through word and action are vital to this relationship. This is work that matters. This is work that is worth all that we put into it—and then some.