Of all the chapters of Understanding by Design I’ve read up to this point, I found this one to be the most engaging. If you are familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy, much of what is presented in this chapter will not be new, but reading it made me realize that I have come further than I really thought I had in implementing solid, authentic assessments for my students.
Near the very beginning of the chapter, Wiggins and McTighe define the act of understanding as being able to “teach it, use it, prove it, connect it, explain it, defend it, [and] read between the lines” (82). How many times have we said as teachers that we didn’t really understand something until we had to teach it? I know I felt that way about grammar. And in fact, this understanding has helped me to improve my writing. Knowing how language works and how to arrange it effectively has enabled me to be a better communicator. The six facets of understanding instantly reminded me of higher order thinking skills on Bloom’s Taxonomy: Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. The six facets of understanding are the ability to explain, to interpret, to apply, to have perspective, to empathize, and to have self-knowledge. Wiggins and McTighe argue that “[i]n teaching for transfer, complete and mature understanding ideally involves the full development of all six kinds of understanding” (85).
One thing I like about this chapter is that the authors give two solid examples of each facet of understanding as well as a “misunderstanding” linked to each facet.
The first facet, the ability to explain, enables a student to understand “how things work, what they imply, where they connect, and why they happened” (86). In order to help students develop the ability to explain, they must “be given assignments and assessments that require them to explain what they know and give good reasons in support of it before we can conclude that they understand what was taught” (87). We should create assessments that ask for students “to reveal their understanding by using such verbs as support, justify, generalize, predict, verify, prove, and substantiate” (87). However, we must also be careful to “[u]se assessments (e.g. performance tasks, projects, prompts, and tests) that ask students to provide an explanation on their own, not simply recall; to link specific facts with larger ideas and justify the connections; to show their work, not just give an answer and to support their conclusions” (88).
In terms of my particular discipline, I think I found the ability to interpret to be the facet of understanding I currently incorporate most fully into my assessments. Wiggins and McTighe assert that “[a] good story both enlightens and engages; it helps us remember and connect” (89). They mention the use of parables in teaching, and of course, I thought immediately of Jesus as a teacher — his use of parables is, of course, well known, and widely considered to be a good way to impart complex messages in ways that his students understood. Literature teaches us much about the human condition, and through the study of our literature, we can learn more about ourselves.
Stories help us make sense of our lives and the lives around us, whether in history, literature, or art. The deepest, most transcendent meanings are found, of course, in the stories, parables, and myths that anchor all religions. A story is no a diversion; the best stories make our lives more understandable and focused. (89)
To illustrate the way in which interpretation can express complex ideas and lead to new understanding, the authors cite, for example, how Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech “crystallized the many complex ideas and feelings behind the civil rights movement” through the use of “words and imagery” (89). What we ask students to do when we ask them to interpret is to “make sense of, show the significance of, decode, and make a story meaningful” (90). Interpretation can be uncomfortable because it allows for various viewpoints. In order to help students interpret, we must craft assessments that “ask them to interpret inherently ambiguous matters — far different than typical ‘right answer’ testing” (92).
In asking students to apply, we are asking them to be able to “use knowledge” (93). Students demonstrate application knowledge by “using it, adapting it, and customizing it” (93). The authors quote Bloom:
Synthesis is what is frequently expected of the mature worker, and the sooner the students are given opportunities to make synthesis on their own, the sooner they will feel that the world of school has something to contribute to them and to the life they will live in the wider society. (93)
In reading this quote, I was reminded of the lyrics for Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome”:
When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school
It’s a wonder I can think at all
And though my lack of education hasn’t hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall
I think too many of our students walk out of high school feeling as if they haven’t learned much they can really use. In teaching students to connect, synthesize, and apply, we need to create assessments that are “as close as possible to the situation in which a scholar, artist, engineer, or other professional attacks such problems” (94). One of the things I like about a number of webquests I’ve seen is that they do indeed ask students to apply what they learn by putting them in the seats of the experts solving certain problems. In fact, the nutrition unit referred to earlier in the book asks students to create a menu for camp and convince a camp director to adopt it. I think this is a great example of application and probably very much like the job of a real dietician.
When Jay McTighe came and spoke at our school, he underscored the use of rubrics and models. In fact, it was McTighe who introduced me to the excellent rubrics at Greece Central School District’s rubrics, which I admire very much. I do, however, think students have trouble interpreting these rubrics and applying them to their own work, which is why I will be giving copies of the rubrics at the beginning of the year, then writing comments directed at the student’s writing on each composition as opposed to stapling the rubric to the top.
I think perhaps educators incorporate the teaching of perspective least often. Can you ever remember being encouraged to think of a text’s or a teacher’s assertions as a matter of perspective? I know you didn’t dare try that with my Medieval Literature professor. He was right. Period. Do you give off that particular vibe? I would like to think I am careful not to do that. I do preface what I say about some topics with clear indicators that it is my opinion they’re about to hear, and not an unquestioned fact. Perspective, then, “involves weighing different plausible explanations and interpretations” (97). We need to ask our students to look at things from different points of view. I think one way in which my particular school does a great job teaching perspective is through our grade level trips and through our religious classes. Our religious classes teach various points of view. It is part of the rabbinic tradition to question, much more so than the Christian tradition, so in that way, our religion classes encourage debate and divergent thinking. In fact, our school is unique in that we accept Jews of all backgrounds: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist.
Just as we should be asking students to think about ideas from other perspectives more often, one way I think our schools do encourage students to understand is through empathy. I think many disciplines encourage students to “walk in another’s shoes,” and to “try to understand another person, people, or culture” (98). Sometimes in order to do this, we have to question our own ideas. I noted in the margins of this section of the chapter that it seems to me that studying history, or for that matter, literature from other time periods, it is critical that we try to look at things from the perspective of people living in that time. Only through empathy can we understand why, for example, chivalry was so important, or why the Crusades were fought, or any number of other events and ideas that formed thinking in the past. I think a great many of the lesson ideas for teaching Shakespeare at the Folger Library are exceptional at helping students empathize with the characters through examination of the times in which they lived. It also occurred to me that the lesson involving the Thoreau panel that my students participated in last year was probably really good for helping them understand through empathy.
Finally, students should come to be able to understand themselves, to exhibit self-knowledge. I highlighted a passage that really spoke to me with regards to how we speak about educating students:
Is the brain really like a computer? Are children really like natural objects or phenomena to be treated as equal variables and “isolated,” so that a standardized test can be modeled on the procedures of scientific experiments? To talk of education as “delivery of instructional services” (an economic metaphor and a more modern variant of the older factory model) or as entailing “behavioral objectives” (language rooted in Skinnerian animal training) is to use metaphors, and not necessarily helpful ones. (101)
This passage sums up something I have felt but been unable to articulate about some of the metaphors we use to describe what we do and the purpose behind standardized testing. Wiggins and McTighe argue that we like to categorize, but in so doing, sometimes we “keep verifying our favored and unexamined models, theories, analogies, and viewpoints” (101). “Thinking in either-or terms is a common example of such a natural habit that we see rampant in education reform and one that Dewey viewed as the curse of immature thought” (101). I see this one a great deal in the debate between phonics and whole language — one can and should use phonics within the context of teaching whole language. Similarly, direct instruction and constructivism can both be implemented in classrooms to great effect. I have seen so much acrimony regarding constructivism in the edublogosphere that I was even somewhat nervous about putting that sentence out there. Wiggins and McTighe refer once again to the Expert Blind Spot. The implications of the facets of understanding “help us avoid the Expert Blind Spot at work when we fall victim to the thinking that says, ‘Because I understand it, I will tell you my understanding and render teaching and learning more efficient’” (103). Is it just easier, then, to lecture instead of allowing students to create meaning “via artful design and effective coaching by the teacher”? (103-104). I wonder if we sometimes just don’t trust our students to learn if we don’t “tell” them. In so doing, perhaps we are robbing them of truly understanding.
Work Cited: Wiggins, Grant, and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. Expanded 2nd Edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005.