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Teaching Beyond the Surface: Strategies for Encouraging True Understanding Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of this 2-part series, where we delve into the art of teaching for understanding. In Part 1 we explored the concept of ‘understanding’ and the six facets of understanding, such as explain, apply or interpret. In Part 2 we explore the practices of teaching for understanding.

This means that teaching for understanding starts at the lesson planning phase. Start with the questions “What is the BIG idea in this lesson or unit? What do I want my students to understand?”  These will help frame learning around concepts that can be transferred to other content areas. For example, some concepts that are easily transferable are conflict, courage, freedom or patterns. Students need to develop a definition of the concept through developing a concept definition map (a visual graphic organizer to construct a definition) or engaging in a concept attainment activity (where they define core concepts by comparing examples and nonexamples to identify attributes of the concept). Please click below to make a copy of the concept definition template and a sample concept attainment activity for identifying the characteristics of the concept ‘carnivore’ in an elementary science class.

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Understanding is constructed through meaning-making or the active manipulation of content using higher-order thinking skills. When planning lessons and units, think about incorporating ways students can ‘show’ you their understanding. Conceptualizing is one way, but the following below are additional meaning-making teaching strategies that can be used:

  • Note taking and summarizing
  • Comparing
  • Reading for understanding
  • Predicting and hypothesizing
  • Visualizing and graphic representation
  • Perspective taking and emphasizing

Yale University’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning defines transfer as “a cognitive practice whereby a learner’s mastery of knowledge or skills in one context enables them to apply that knowledge or skill in a different context.” Teaching and assessing for transfer means that students show what they learned through authentic and tangible tasks with a real audience and value in the community, the region, or the world. When the goal of teaching and learning is transfer, teaching becomes more like coaching and guiding our students. Check out the brief article from Jay McTighe and Elliot Seif called “Teaching for understanding: A meaningful education for 21st century learners” and use the “Observable Classroom Indicators” chart to assess whether teaching for transfer occurs in your classroom. These simple teacher self-reflection questions help you quickly assess the extent you are teaching BIG ideas, or give multiple opportunities for your students to demonstrate understanding using the six facets – explanation, interpretation, application, perspective, empathy and self-reflection.

As we conclude this exploration into teaching for understanding, it’s clear that the journey toward true comprehension involves intentional planning, active engagement, and assessment strategies focused on transferable skills. By embracing BIG ideas, facilitating meaning-making activities, and assessing for transfer, educators can nurture students’ ability to apply their learning beyond the classroom.

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