The teachers at Victoria School show us how teachers can actively work together, forging communities of learning, to guide students beyond just mere knowledge, towards true understanding.
We are all aware that to know something is not quite the same as understanding something. After all, just because a student understands the concept of overpopulation does not mean that he also understands how this may contribute to environmental deterioration or why this could lead to the extinction of certain native plants and animals. He may know a great deal but he has failed to understand its implications – a scenario that teachers have encountered all too often in the classroom.
Added to this is also a more established awareness of the culture of isolation among teachers: a culture where a lack of shared knowledge and peer support is endemic. Simply put, teachers just don’t share their skills and experiences with each other, and there is no support among the faculty. And so, teachers’ capacities are often sorely constrained as a result, as they try to fight a seemingly lonely battle against unmotivated students, a relentless workload, and the heavy responsibility of shaping the next generation.
To combat both of these trends, Mrs Lee Hwa Phiak, together with the teachers at Victoria School have turned to the Teaching for Understanding (TfU) framework1, developed by the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Teaching for Understanding
In line with the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) Teach Less, Learn More focus, the TfU framework asks four main questions that teachers need to ask themselves before they even begin to teach:
- What shall we teach?
- What is worth understanding?
- How shall we teach for understanding?
- How can students and teacher know what students understand and how students can develop deeper understanding?
These questions help teachers to understand why they teach what they teach. It acknowledges teachers’ true role as facilitators of understanding – they are no longer just mere providers of knowledge.
This framework also helps teachers understand how what they teach contributes to their students’ understanding.
To learn how to implement the TfU framework in their own subject areas, the teaching staff completed an online professional development programme (WIDE World2). By working in small teams, they were able to try out new strategies, discuss and obtain feedback. This also helped to combat the problem of teacher isolation through extensive collaborative learning and active peer review, which provided a rich and purposeful learning experience.
This supportive process continued even after the course was completed. The teachers remained dedicated to applying the TfU framework to the curriculum, as part of their shared responsibility for their students’ learning. Combining their experience and resources, they worked together on lesson plans and assessment activities. Teachers also sat in on each other’s lessons and reflected upon their own as well as others’ teaching practices.
This greater exploration and experimentation in teaching practice, using the common language of the TfU framework, not only increased teacher motivation and morale but also student engagement in class. Lessons become more enjoyable and meaningful, and students demonstrated a positive gain in their subject performance.
Not only have the teachers at Victoria School managed to inspire greater understanding in their students, but they have also deepened their own knowledge and understanding of content and pedagogy through shared awareness and effort.
- Teaching for Understanding is an instructional framework that focuses on the “performance perspective” of knowledge. It aims to view “understanding” as a matter of “being able to do a variety of thought-provoking things with a topic, such as explaining, finding evidence in examples, generalizing, applying, making analogies, and representing the topic in new ways” (Blythe & Perkins, 1998, p. 12).
- WIDE World is an online development program for educators and school leaders. It is focused on the learning and application of teaching and/or content strategies, including the Teaching for Understanding framework. Its online courses enable teachers to work in small teams, giving them opportunities to try out new strategies, post reflections in the online discussion, and receive feedback from their coach and peers.
Blythe, T., & Perkins, D. (1998). Understanding understanding. In T. Blythe (Ed.), The teaching for understanding guide (pp. 9-16). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.