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Usable Knowledge

Origins of a Framework for Effective Practice

A research-based and classroom-tested approach led to the Teaching for Understanding framework used worldwide.
photo of a hand on a blackboard

Good ideas often arise out of collaboration among reflective people. Such is the case with the Teaching for Understanding (TfU) framework. The three founders were Howard Gardner, David Perkins, and Vito Perrone (now retired), all faculty members at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. They began with age-old questions about education: What does it mean to understand something? How do we know if a student understands something? How can we support the development of understanding? Critically, they enlisted the help of many other experienced teachers and researchers to develop, test, and refine an approach for effective teaching.

In 1988, the founders convened a group of educators and researchers to plan a five-year project. The project's goal would be to develop a research-based and classroom-tested approach to teaching for understanding. At its core would be a performance view of understanding: student understanding means not just the ability to reproduce knowledge, but to generalize it in unscripted ways to new problems. With initial support from the Spencer Foundation, more than 60 school-based and 30 university-based participants took on this mission, and the Teaching for Understanding Project was born.

The school- and university-based collaborators were a diverse group. They represented every grade level, from pre-K to graduate school. Teachers and administrators worked in both public and private schools. Teacher educators and professional developers, curriculum designers, and developmental psychologists were also represented. What members shared was an investment in promoting deep understanding in formal education settings.

During the initial phase of the project, interviews and meetings fostered communication among team members, and classroom observations grounded members' view of the setting for their work. In the second and third year of the project, teachers and researchers met weekly, developed case studies of their classroom experiences, and helped to refine the theory and framework as it emerged from the collaboration. Project directors Rebecca Simmons and Stone Wiske helped guide and shape the work throughout the project period.

The final phase of the TfU project involved testing and refining the approach. Since the framework is not made up of prescribed curriculum units, team members spent time creating units that were aligned with it, as a teacher using the approach would need to do. Interviews with teachers and students as well as classroom observations provided the bulk of the data as researchers looked into the effectiveness of the practices in action. In some cases, curriculum units were used in individual classrooms, and in others, the approach was adopted at the school level.

The TfU framework has evolved since its inception. Though it was developed in the United States, researchers and teachers around the world have adapted and adopted the approach. The framework has also been enhanced by considering the use of new and emerging technologies to promote learning among individual students and groups of learners. Researchers and practitioners working with the framework will continue to accommodate this teaching approach to ever changing educational contexts.

Adapted from:
Blythe, T., & Associates (1998).
The Teaching for Understanding Guide. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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