Archive for ‘understanding’

April 13, 2014

Education between Wars and Understanding (1)

“Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” (G. B. Shaw)


It is perhaps our greatest strength and our deepest vulnerability to believe in something. Education makes no exception when it comes to beliefs and values that underpin every single act of our teaching. Those who think that they possess a strong independent mind, unaltered by bias, fall prey to overt or hidden ideologies, even as they claim their neutrality by invoking research. In doing so, they forget that “research and politics are inextricably bound together.” (Cohen et al, Research Methods in Education).

February 22, 2014

Making Thinking Visible or How to Debate Poorly

It took me some time to write this post as I don’t generally engage in replying to particular bloggers – I , for one, have better things to do other than arguing with someone in the blogosphere.

Harry Webb posted back in December about the website Making Thinking Visible and called these routines “step-wise procedures” using Carl Bereiter’s arguments. This is his own description and I would like to deconstruct his arguments as he mistakes these techniques with teaching thinking programs.


First, it is interesting (dare I say ironic?) that he uses Bereiter’s book (which I also read, namely Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age) to discredit the work and research behind Visible Thinking project – the title of the blog post is relevant in itself (“Thinkamajiks”). I say ironic because Harry is a “traditional” teacher (he always mentions that on Twitter) and Bereiter is quite a progressive mind, who sees inquiry (A) as a more effective way to learn, emphasizes motivation and mentions the importance of thinking as a social activity (B), all of which do not fit in the “traditional” model.

  1. To develop such knowledge, it is obvious that students must be engaged in inquiry. Passive uptake of knowledge, as in reading a novel or listening to a lecture, has its value, as I’ve argued earlier. But, to continue with the hiking analogy, it’s like viewing a movie rather than actually going on it.” (ch. 9, p. 338)
  2.  “It is time to take a broader view, in which thinking is seen as a primarily social activity (although always with an important private component). Ignoring these three- thinking as a social activity, how thinking relates to knowledge and motivation -reduces thinking to a set of parlor tricks.” (ch. 9, p.348)

Moreover, in the description of his own model (Knowledge Building), Bereiter states,

“As a constructivist approach, Knowledge Building shares many characteristics with the other constructivist approaches discussed earlier. That goal is to advance the frontiers of knowledge as they (the students, n.n.) perceive them. ‘As they perceive them’ is an important qualification when Knowledge Building is undertaken in educational contexts. Identifying frontiers and judging what constitutes an advance are essential parts of Knowledge Building, which students need to learn to carry out themselves, not depend on a teacher or a textbook to do for them.”

Now, let’s go back to Harry’s post.

October 27, 2013

Transfer of Learning

A quick, Sunday post.

“Transfer of learning occurs when learning in one context enhances a related performance in ANOTHER context. “ (David N. Perkins, Harvard Graduate School of Education)

1. Transfer is not ordinary learning.
Although “learning” as a psychological phenomenon does embed a minimal change (cognitively speaking) it differs from “transfer” in that it does not extend beyond its original context. Example: a student may show certain grammar skills on the English test (ordinary learning) but not in everyday speech (the hoped-for transfer). The student may solve the problems at the end of the chapter (ordinary learning) but not similar problems when they occur mixed with others at the end of the course (the hoped-for transfer).

2. Near versus far transfer.
Near transfer refers to transfer between very similar contexts. Example: in an exam the student solves similar types of problems s/he has previously practiced.
Far transfer implies application of knowledge and skills to problems or domains that seem remote (e.g. math and art, math and architecture etc.).

August 26, 2013

Reading Strategies Are Great. Not.

Well, well, well. That is so unnerving. What? The reading strategies that are so faithfully and dutifully used across the U.S. are to be blamed for the low reading scores in the past decades? (tenth grade U.S. students scoring 15th in reading among 27 developed countries)

The reasons are explored in a challenging read (challenging in that it clashes with the “progressive” views), The Knowledge Deficit by E. D. Hirsch. I won’t go into detail about the book (read it, even if you disagree with his views) but I will focus on a few clarifications Hirsch makes in regards to reading that I find very useful for any teacher.

Consider the following paragraph:

“In eukaryotes, RNA polymerase, and therefore the initiation of transcription, requires the presence of a core promoter sequence in the DNA. Promoters are regions of DNA that promote transcription and, in eukaryotes, are found at -30, -75, and -90 base pairs upstream from the start site of transcription. Core promoters are sequences within the promoter that are essential for transcription initiation. RNA polymerase is able to bind to core promoters in the presence of various specific transcription factors.”

How much did you understand of it? 50%? 40%? Less? Wait. You are an intellectual. How could you not? After all, you can decode (phonologically) all the words. You know the punctuation marks. You know grammar, too.

The problem? You lack the knowledge (background knowledge) that is critical to comprehend such a text (I selected it from An Introduction to Molecular Biology ).

This is exactly what E.D. Hirsch argues for (and I must say, having a lot of research to link to and nearly 20 pages of notes): comprehension is not a strategy problem but a knowledge problem.

July 27, 2013

Misconceptions About Critical Thinking


Critical thinking. It is perhaps the second most used phrase these days (first being “creativity”). Everyone uses it, especially in the context of (can I smile here?) “21st-century skills” ideology.  I am always intrigued by two categories of things: those that everyone seems to agree on – the obvious, the visible, the collective agreement, the mainstream, the trend – and the those that few seem to question – the hidden, the assumed, the overlooked, the forgotten.

As such I started reading and rereading. Among other articles, one caught my eye: Common Misconceptions of Critical Thinking. Because I do not want to simplify the issue I urge you to read it in full (and because the original PDF is quite difficult to read due to formatting I made a new one – see below).

The authors begin by deconstructing the three main views on critical thinking  – as skills (the most widely-held), as mental processes and as procedures (these found at the more pragmatic level, that is, in teaching strategies we employ).

Critical thinking

June 26, 2013

Breadth, Depth and Understanding

*Chapter 7 (What Is Uncoverage?) from Understanding by Design focuses on two important concepts in teaching/learning – depth and breadth, both of which need to be balanced in a spiraled curriculum that engages the learner to not only know or perform but understand.

Wiggins talks about the need to uncover as it stems from a “blind spot” many teachers exhibit when they teach – that is, they teach from the standpoint of the expert without realizing that what is connected and meaningful to them is not perceived as such by students.

Another challenge is also presented by textbooks where information, regardless of the subject, is linear and convergent. That is not how knowledge was constructed – even in sciences, let alone humanistic studies, many competing theories, hypotheses and struggles occurred historically, and students need to understand why and how a certain say, mathematical theorem, came to be widely accepted and used.

Obviously, not all knowledge should be inquired into – there is not physical time for that anyway –  we need to find what is valuable and relevant within a discipline and design these increasingly sophisticated challenges that push students’ thinking beyond the simple knowing of content. 

June 16, 2013

The Six Facets of Understanding (4)

*Those who read this blog know that I read Grant Wiggins’s  book Understanding by Design with chapters 1 , 2, and 3 already summarized. I prefer books to blogs by far as there is more substantial knowledge to derive from them, to question and analyze. Blogs are great in some ways but detrimental in others – too much personal input, beliefs, values, cultural context. Definitely enriching but at times I don’t really need that much, especially in the area of teaching where true thought leaders are hard to find. Most of today’s “innovative” ideas belong to the past, and I learned that in high school (more than 20 years ago) when I studied history of pedagogy.

Back to Wiggins.

I organized his ideas from Chapter 4 (The Six Facets of Understanding) in a chart that you can download. I think that schools do not engage students in many of the understanding processes showed below but mainly in the last three. We as “intellectuals” fail often to display understanding, too, which is why reading this book was also an exercise in self-reflection.

I will post later this summer on my “teaching” blog to show class examples of how I try to address each facet. I am privileged because I have been working in IB schools for the past 11 years and all of Wiggins’s (and Jay McTighe’s) ideas are embedded in the IB philosophy.

The facets of understanding are different but related, in the same way that different criteria are used in judging the quality of performance.

April 5, 2013

Understanding Understanding (3)

The third chapter of Understanding by Design is one of the most provocative as it focuses on the very definition and range of meanings of the word “understanding”. It is a rather nebulous term and many educators use it to convey different ways of “understanding”. So what does  mean? Does it mean to internalize knowledge? To grasp the core essence? To be able to make connections later on?

(Gardner, 1991) “The test of understanding involves neither repetition of information learned nor performance of practices mastered. Rather it involves the appropriate application of concepts and principles to questions/problems that are newly posed.

The book’s authors stress the importance of clarifying this term not for the sake of semantics but because conceptual clarity is important. What is interesting about “understanding” as they define it is that it is different from knowledge (regardless of how vast it is) AND performance.

April 2, 2013

Essential Questions (2)

*As mentioned in my previous post, I am reading Understanding by Design and will post the most interesting bits here as a way to remember and reflect.*

“In the absence of overarching questions, students are left with rhetorical questions in a march through coverage or activities.

Questions not only focus learning, they also make all subject-knowledge possible. If students are to understand what is known, they need to simulate or recreate some of the inquiry by which the knowledge was created. Such an approach is, after all, how the pioneer came to understand the unknown: asking questions and testing ideas.

i.e. Why is it true that a triangle always has 180 degrees? How can we know for sure?

Types of questions (examples):

  1. Essential question: Must a story have a moral, heroes and villains?
  2. Unit question: Is Huck Finn a hero?
  3. *Entry-point questions for understanding

*Learners need concrete and meaningful experiences, problems, applications, and shifts of perspective to enable an important question to arise. Plunking a big idea at the beginning of a unit may not always stimulate student inquiry because typically the student does not know enough or care enough about the issues involved to see the need or value in addressing such question.

i.e. abstract discussion on property rights —is made accessible and intriguing by using the saying “Finders keepers, losers weepers” and building role-play around the idea.

Giving the answer straight away bypasses inquiry and deep understanding. “