Constructivism and Understanding: Implementing the Teaching for Understanding Framework
Graffam, Ben, Journal of Secondary Gifted Education
For teaching gifted and other high-ability learners, the idea that understanding is more significant than knowing is nearly a no-brainer. Teachers are continuously looking for ways to raise the intellectual bar through classroom challenges that push these learners to extend beyond the factual knowledge base that is often the measuring stick of standardized state exams. But, how do we implement such challenges in ways that raise both the bar and the interest level of the learners? The Teaching for Understanding (TfU) framework addresses this issue, and this paper describes the introduction of TfU at an International Baccalaureate school in Florida. The framework engages the students, moving them into constructivist learning styles, while simultaneously leading the teacher into a dearer sense of how to assess student understanding. Blending thinking from both constructivist and understanding camps, this paper argues that such a pedagogy is far superior to simple methodologies and might be a great match for classes that mix gifted and high-ability learners.
As educators, we recognize a vast difference between teaching for knowledge and teaching for understanding. In the former, education is a function and force of the classroom: Students work (or don't) on topics or units that will remain embedded in that setting. The teacher is not only the leader, but also the central player in this type of classroom. Students research there, process there, make products there, are tested there; their knowledge resides mainly there. No transfer encourages the students to take knowledge with them when they leave and engage in the "real world."
In the latter, however, education is a function and force of the world at large. Students become engaged in topics or units because a central theme in such education is the making of connections with students' own lives (Perkins, 1993). Teachers learn with their students and share the responsibility of the classroom's work. Research is done in classrooms, but it is also done in the community, sharing with friends, family, and local "experts." Transfer is a matter of fact when teaching for understanding occurs.
The Teaching for Understanding (TfU) framework, researched and developed at Harvard's Project Zero, is a constructivist approach to the learning process (Stone-Wiske, 1998) that plays on Schwandt's and McCarty's (2000) idea that everyone who believes the mind is active in the making of knowledge is a constructivist. In a nutshell, the TfU pedagogy creates classrooms where student inquiry and a performance view of understanding are significant ideas. Four general concepts frame the practice: 1) Generative Topics, 2) Understanding Goals, 3) Performances of Understanding, and 4) On-Going Assessment, the last being the major focus of this paper. TfU asks students "to make new connections within their various worlds, construct mental images that go beyond their current understandings, and imagine themselves and their circumstances differently" (Stone-Wiske, 1998, p. 14).
In many ways, TfU is a perfect vehicle for gifted classrooms, as it is both challenging and differentiating (Tomlinson, 1995) and its performance view of understanding engenders creativity, the "highest form of giftedness" (Piirto, 1992 p. 29). TfU is also geared for combining gifts and talents in formal processes by allowing the student to select individual learning goals and outcomes and then assisting in the achievement of these (Gagne, 2003). Though the steps are not as clear, perhaps, as Gagne intended, there are some paths that TfU takes that would be quite beneficial for the gifted classroom.
Gardner and Boix-Mansilla (1994) defined understanding as the "capacity to use current knowledge, concepts, and skills to illuminate new problems or unanticipated issues" (p. 200). Spontaneity plays a role, as does flexibility when understanding is to be assessed. Perkins said that understanding is
the ability to think and act flexibly with what one knows.... An understanding of a topic is a flexible performance capability with emphasis on the flexibility.... [It is] more like learning to improvise jazz or hold a good conversation or rock climb than learning the multiplication table or the dates of the presidents or that F = MA (Stone-Wiske, 1998 p. 40).
When utilizing a pedagogy of understanding, we approach a most basic goal of education: the preparation of students for more effective functioning in their lives (Perkins, 1993).
It is difficult to teach for understanding, partially because it asks us to work with and change entrenched theories of mind held by young learners. These theories hold and compete with newer, more informed ideas constructed systematically in the disciplines (Gardner & Boix-Mansilla, 1994). In a major way, teaching for understanding asks us to begin the transformation of intuitive beliefs held by students in our classroom.
I have been implementing the TfU framework for the past 3 years in both the Theory of Knowledge and Pre-International Baccalaureate English classes I teach. Our IB school serves students from all around our county (Polk, FL), and it averages greater than 52% gifted students, who are identified predominantly by WISC-III scores and previously served in elementary and middle schools. They are a wonderfully bright cadre of students, among the national leaders in SAT and ACT scores, and they move on to some of the best universities in the nation. They are, though, still high school students and need a constant energizing toward their studies in order to get them to perform at their optimum level. It is important, then, to motivate, differentiate, and individualize the learning environment. The TfU framework offers a way to do that, not only for the gifted students here, but for all of the minds of our program. This paper presents an overview of how I introduce the flamework to my students.
TfU and Constructivism
The whole nature of the classroom changes while teaching for understanding. Such constructivist classrooms demand far more than prepackaged learning from teachers and students (Brooks & Brooks, 1999). According to Phillips (1995), there are at least three distinctive constructivist dimensions, all falling on interactive continua: 1) the active process, where the activity is either social or individual or mental or physical; 2) the social process, where the concern is for the difference between individual knowledge construction or general human knowledge; and 3) the creative process, with the issue focusing on whether knowledge is constructed from the inner creativity or is imposed from the outside. Each puts different emphasis on the learning environment, though all argue that learning takes place in a social setting. Knowledge of the world comes to us in conversation, in argument, and in the way people talk about and share their interpretations and understandings (Schwandt & McCarty, 2000). Such social interaction is a key to cognitive growth, as it recognizes the significance of the role that language plays in learning (Vygotsky, 1978).
TfU supports and develops conversations of a flexible nature, where validation of information is key to demonstrating personal understanding. Students work to develop rich conceptual webs of understanding and are pushed to recognize how validation emerges through open, rational argument. Simultaneously, they are asked to see validation criteria as open to questioning and revision over time; they are asked to see that knowledge is humanly constructed (Stone-Wiske, 1998). Berger and Luckmann (1966) argued that our sense of knowing an) thing is the result of processes and activities they called …
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Publication information: Article title: Constructivism and Understanding: Implementing the Teaching for Understanding Framework. Contributors: Graffam, Ben - Author. Journal title: Journal of Secondary Gifted Education. Volume: 15. Issue: 1 Publication date: Fall 2003. Page number: 13+. © Not available. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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