Constructivism and Understanding: Implementing the Teaching for Understanding Framework

By Graffam, Ben | Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

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.

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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. 

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