Research to Practice Brief
Improving Secondary Education and Transition Services through Research
November 2003 • Vol. 2, Issue 4
Teaching for Understanding
By Christine D. Bremer and Catherine Cobb Morocco
Most people would agree that education should be about teaching for
but fewer would say that our schools are regularly achieving this goal.
traditional lectures, exercises, and drills may help students memorize
and formulas and get the right answers on tests, this time-honored style
teaching does not help students achieve the depth of understanding they
to understand complex ideas and apply knowledge in new settings or
Noted Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, in a 1993 interview, commented
studies have shown that many students, even at the college level,
not understand, in the most basic sense of that term. That is, they lack
capacity to take knowledge learned in one setting and apply it
in a different setting” (Brandt, 1993, ¶ 3).
Gardner supported his statement with examples from science, mathematics,
science, and language arts, noting that even students who do well on
readily apply what they have learned. Rather, many high school and
cannot answer simple questions about things they have been taught.
the example of a 1989 video by the Private Universe Project (Nelson,
taped at a Harvard graduation, in which new graduates and faculty were
why the earth is warmer in summer than in winter. Of the 25 people
22 answered incorrectly that it was because the earth was closer to the
in the summer. Only three remembered what they had been taught about the
of the earth on its axis and the resulting change in the angle of the
In recent years, a number of researchers and education reformers have
to define student understanding and to identify strategies that teachers
use to help students acquire the skills of understanding. The Research
to Accelerate Content Learning through High Support for Students with
in Grades 4-81 (REACH), directed by Catherine Cobb Morocco, has extended
thinking to address the particular challenges of teaching for
in inclusive classrooms. These classrooms include students with a range
and educate students with disabilities alongside their non-disabled
(2001) notes that in order to implement teaching for understanding in
classrooms, teachers must learn a new and challenging style of teaching
and concepts, while at the same time addressing the widely varying needs
learning styles of students in the classroom.
What is Understanding?
We use the words understand and understanding in varied ways. One
definition of understand is “to achieve a grasp of the nature,
or explanation of something.” Definitions of understanding include
capacity to apprehend general relations of particulars,” and
power to make experience intelligible by applying concepts and
(Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 2002).
The Teaching for Understanding Project at the Harvard Graduate School of
(Blythe & Perkins, 1998) developed a definition of understanding that
calls the performance perspective. In this view, “understanding is
of being able to do a variety of thought-provoking things with a topic,
as explaining, finding evidence in examples, generalizing, applying,
analogies, and representing the topic in new ways” (p. 12).
Several research efforts have focused on enhancing students’
through improved teaching methods. Unfortunately, few of these studies
results for students with disabilities. An extensive research effort on
for understanding in high school classrooms was undertaken by researchers
the Harvard Graduate School of Education from 1988 to 1995. During this
researchers collaborated closely with four high school teachers in
schools to address the following questions:
- What topics are worth understanding?
- What must students understand about the topics?
- How can we foster understanding?
- How can we ascertain what students understand? (Wiske, 1998a, p.
The researchers found that each teacher’s experience was unique,
that efforts toward teaching for understanding varied in their impact on
performance. However, this study showed the promise of teaching for
as some of the teachers saw notable improvements in student performance.
findings inspired others to explore teaching for understanding with
in inclusive classrooms.
Recent research by REACH on teaching for understanding with students
includes studies involving upper elementary classrooms (Baxter, Woodward,
& Wong, 2002; Cutter, Palincsar, & Magnusson, 2002; Feretti,
& Okolo, 2001; MacArthur, Ferretti, & Okolo, 2002; Palincsar,
Collins, & Cutter, 2001; and Woodward, Monroe, & Baxter, 2001)
and eighth grade middle school classrooms (Hindin, Morocco, &
Morocco, Hindin, Mata-Aguilar, & Clark-Chiarelli, 2001; Morocco &
2002). Morocco (2001) notes four cross-cutting findings of these studies:
- When students with disabilities participate in instruction based on
four principles Morocco describes (see below), they show gains
to those of their normally achieving peers.
- Students with disabilities may benefit from explicit instruction
of investigating and learning within each domain of knowledge.
- In order to successfully implement these new ways of teaching, it is
that teachers have access to ongoing professional development.
- The design of assessments is critically important. Proper assessment
that teachers be well versed in the content domain being studied, and
they use assessments that reveal the depth of students’
Assessments may include methods like interviews, problem-solving
In each of the REACH studies, teaching for understanding included
both curriculum design and delivery of instructional units. Curriculum
design is linked to several guiding principles of instruction for
understanding. These principles reflect a convergence of social,
and special education research around how understanding develops. They
1. Authentic tasks
Instruction designed around authentic tasks helps
students become fully engaged in learning and developing an understanding
content. Authentic tasks have three key characteristics. First, they
students in constructing knowledge by integrating preexisting knowledge
new information. Activities that promote such integration include
questions, seeking information, and synthesizing information. Second, the
employed should be tailored to each content area to help students
major ideas. Finally, the tasks should have real-life relevance and
a basis for understanding issues and problems encountered outside of
2. Opportunities to build cognitive strategies
Strategies for upper elementary and middle school students range
basic skills such as organizing materials and correcting spelling to
level skills like editing the content of a class paper for coherence,
down a math problem into its elements, and writing persuasively. It is
to teach cognitive strategies either through explicit instruction or by
and encouraging use of these strategies within a subject area.
3. Learning that is socially mediated
Learning and understanding are
enhanced when students are able to interact constructively with one
in building and integrating new knowledge. Morocco suggests several ways
teachers can support socially mediated learning: (a) ensure shared
of the learning activity; (b) encourage students to make their thinking
to each other through visual representations or dramatization; and (c)
problems and materials that allow for a range of perspectives.
4. Engagement in constructive conversation
Students can best engage
in constructive conversation when they are able to express their own
questions and listen to and integrate the perspectives of others into
own thinking. Teachers can encourage constructive conversation by
a focus on a theme, allowing time for significant discussion, and
thoughtfully to the content of students’ comments in class.
Figure 1 presents a template for the design of a
unit that reflects these four principles. A unit is organized around a
overarching goals related to understanding particular ideas and concepts
a subject area. These goals might encompass several months of work. The
addresses these large goals through a specific unit topic and
goals related to that topic. The unit includes a set of instructional
tasks that encourage students to actively construct knowledge through
These activities engage students in learning with one another and
in conversations that encourage them to express ideas, pose questions,
information. Individual support practices make the activities accessible
students with a range of abilities and individual learning needs. One
source of support is instruction in the ways of thinking and learning
strategies) that are important within a content domain.
Note: From "Teaching for understanding with students with
New directions for research on access to the general education
by C. C. Morocco, 2001, Learning Disabilities Quarterly, 24, p.
Assessments take two forms (see the bottom left of Figure 1): ongoing
of student understanding that guide the teacher in further modifying the
and a culminating assessment activity that enables the student to
his or her understanding of the major skills, strategies, and concepts
in the unit. These assessments are themselves authentic tasks that
to express their understanding of important ideas in the unit.
One example of a curriculum unit designed around this structure is a
school social studies unit on the topic of immigration to the United
in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (MacArthur, et al., 2002).
were asked to investigate the experience of one of two immigrant groups:
or Eastern European Jews. An overarching goal of this and earlier units
to help students understand some of the causes and consequences of
A unit-specific goal was to study these groups’ ways of life that
rise to their immigration and the conflicts that ensued as a result of
in the United States. Instructional opportunities included working
in heterogeneous groups to study and interpret information about the
and nativist viewpoints on immigration (nativists were Americans who
immigration between 1870 and 1920, often for economic reasons). For the
part, materials that students investigated were excerpted from authentic
sources that historians use in their investigations, including diaries,
The designers used a pilot test of the unit to identify students’
about the topic and their difficulties with the central concepts and then
the unit for further classroom-based research. Based on the pilot
the designers constructed a “migration and conflict” schema
students organize the information they gathered about their immigrant
and to better grasp the unit’s big ideas. For the migration part of
schema, students were asked to determine how the immigrants’ ways
gave impetus to the migration. For the conflict part of the schema,
compared and contrasted the immigrants’ and nativists’ ways
to understand why these two groups were in competition. Students found
useful for comparing and contrasting differing viewpoints about
Each lesson provided teachers and students with opportunities for
One culminating assessment strategy was a debate about the desirability
in this period of American history. Students were placed in cooperative
to represent the immigrant or nativist viewpoint. To provide all students
access to the debate, the unit included a planning sheet that prompted
to generate reasons on both sides of the debate and to think of
Curriculum units based on this design were selected or developed for
investigations of inclusive instruction in mathematics, science, and
arts, as well as social studies. An essential element of this
model is that teachers build individualized instruction and support for
and groups of learners into the unit design phase. Providing multiple
opportunities ensures that students can use a variety of approaches to
complex ideas. In addition to considering individual support practices
this unit design, teachers take into account district goals and align the
to district and state standards.
Authentic and Inclusive Teaching and Learning
The view that active learning promotes understanding is shared by the
Institute on Secondary Education Reform for Youth with Disabilities
which has published a set of criteria and indicators for identifying
that are models of authentic and inclusive teaching and learning. These
and indicators are based on the work of Newmann, Secada, and Wehlage
regarding successful school restructuring. The RISER indicators related
experiences can be seen as exemplars of the four research-based
by Morocco (Table 1).
Table 1. Relationship of Authentic and
Teaching and Learning to Principles of Teaching for
Principles of Teaching for Understanding (b)
Indicators for Authentic and Inclusive Teaching and Learning
| Authentic Tasks
|| Opportunities to Build
|| Learning That is Socially
|| Engagement in Constructive
|Students organize, synthesize, interpret, explain, or
information in addressing a concept, problem, or issue.
|Students consider alternative solutions, strategies,
or points of view in addressing a concept, problem, or
|Students manipulate information and ideas by
generalizing, explaining, hypothesizing, or arriving at conclusions
result in new understandings.
|Students show understanding built on ideas, theories,
perspectives considered the base knowledge of an academic or
|Students use methods of inquiry, research, or
characteristic of an academic or professional discipline.
|Students elaborate on their understanding,
or conclusions through extended writing, product, or
|Instruction addresses each topic’s central
enough thoroughness to explore connections and relationships and to
|Students engage in reflective conversation with
and/or peers in a way that builds a shared understanding of ideas or
| Students address concepts, problems, or issues
to ones they have encountered or are likely to encounter in
|Students communicate their knowledge, present a
or performance, or take some action for an audience beyond the
classroom, and school building.
|Students engage in structured, experiential learning
the school setting, including job/career shadowing, community service
or formal work-based learning (e.g., cooperative education, youth
|Students make connections between knowledge and
problems or personal experiences.
a Indicators are
from Research Institute on Secondary Education Reform (n.d.),
b Principles of Teaching for
are those developed by Morocco (2001).
A Framework for Teaching for Understanding
Researchers at Harvard’s Teaching for Understanding Project
a framework that complements the approaches described above (Wiske,
Within this framework, the first step is to identify generative topics
to the subject matter, and then to organize curriculum around those
Generative topics are those that are considered central or important to
the field; can be related to present-day experiences or events; can
a basis for progressing to the next level of instruction or
intrinsically interesting to the students and teacher; represent
in the field; and can be approached at several levels of complexity.
of generative topics include:
- Literature (e.g., fantasy, humor, coming-of-age themes, multiple
- Science (e.g., global warming, endangered species, rocketry,
- History (e.g., exploration, revolution, use of power, impact of
The second step is to develop explicit understanding goals that relate
to the ideas and questions that form the basis of a content area.
goals answer the question, “What do you most want your students to
by the end of their term or their year in your class?” (Wiske, p.
Explicit understanding goals are key to developing appropriate
student learning. For example, one of the understanding goals for a
unit with the generative topic “plants and animals” might be:
will understand how biologists distinguish between plants and
Third, students are engaged in performances of understanding in which
demonstrate their ability to apply their knowledge and understanding in
settings or situations. For a mathematics unit on fractions that has the
goal, “Students will understand U.S. standard and metric units of
a performance of understanding might include preparing a recipe using
creating a visual display comparing U.S. standard and metric units of
and explaining to the class the advantages and disadvantages of each
Fourth, there is ongoing assessment of student performances in order to
understanding and provide the information teachers and administrators
improve planning and instruction. Such assessments are most helpful
when they are frequent, use clear and public criteria related to the
goals, involve both students and teachers as evaluators, and result in
suggestions for improvement.
Teaching for understanding promotes in-depth learning over covering a
range of material, and applying knowledge to real-world problems over
on short-answer quizzes. This is most likely to occur in schools that
as communities of learners. It can be time consuming, and it requires
to present material in nontraditional ways that engage active
from students with a wide range of learning styles and learning
requires teachers’ commitment to understanding the challenges
face in working with intellectually demanding material and to using or
strategies that make the material accessible to a variety of learners.
the result is well worth the effort: Students truly learn and are able to
that learning with them and use it as they make the transition into adult
Baxter, J., Woodward, J., Voorhies, J., & Wong, J. (2002). We talk
it, but do they get it? Learning Disabilities Research and Practice,
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(Ed.), The teaching for understanding guide (pp. 9-16). San
Brandt, R. (1993). On teaching for understanding: A conversation with
Gardner [Electronic version]. Educational Leadership, 50(7).
June 5, 2002, from
Cutter, J., Palincsar, A. S., & Magnusson, S. J. (2002). Supporting
through case-based vignette conversations. Learning Disabilities
and Practice, 17(3), 186-200.
Feretti, R. P., MacArthur, C. D., & Okolo, C. M. (2001). Teaching
understanding in inclusive classrooms. Learning Disability Quarterly,
Hindin, A., Morocco, C. C., & Aguilar, C. M. (2001). This book lives
our school: Teaching middle school students to understand literature.
and Special Education, 22, 204-213.
MacArthur, C. A., Ferretti, R. P., & Okolo, C. M. (2002). On
controversial viewpoints: Debates of sixth graders about the desirability
early 20th century American immigration. Learning Disabilities
and Practice, 17(3), 160-172.
Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (2002). [Electronic version].
January 13, 2003, from http://www.m-w.com/home.htm
Morocco, C. C. (2001). Teaching for understanding with students with
New directions for research on access to the general education
Disability Quarterly, 24, 5-13.
Morocco, C. C., Hindin, A., Mata-Aguilar, C., & Clark-Chiarelli, N.
Building a deep understanding of literature with middle-grade students
learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 24,
Morocco, C. C., & Hindin, A. (2002). The role of conversation in a
understanding of literature. Learning Disabilities Research and
Newmann, F. M., Secada, W. G., & Wehlage, G. G. (1995). A guide
authentic instruction and assessment: Vision, standards, and
WI: Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools.
Nelson, G. D. (1999). Science literacy for all in the 21st century
version]. Educational Leadership, 57(2), 14-17. Retrieved
2002 from http://www.project2061.org/newsinfo/research/articles/ascd.htm
Palincsar, A. S., Magnusson, S. J., Collins, K. M., & Cutter, J.
Making science accessible to all: Results of a design experiment in
classrooms. Learning Disability Quarterly, 24, 15-32.
Research Institute on Secondary Education Reform (n.d.). Criteria
of authentic and inclusive teaching and learning. Retrieved
2002, from http://www.wcer.wisc.edu
Wiske, M. S. (1998a). The importance of understanding. In M. S. Wiske
Teaching for understanding (pp. 1-9). San Francisco:
Wiske, M. S. (1998b). What is teaching for understanding? In M. S. Wiske
Teaching for understanding (pp. 61-86). San Francisco:
Woodward, J., Monroe, K., & Baxter, J. (2001). Enhancing student
on performance assessments in mathematics. Learning Disability
ALPS Teaching for Understanding
Includes detailed information on teaching for understanding, projects
by teachers (elementary through grade eight), curriculum design tools,
to communicate with other educators. Web: http://learnweb.harvard.edu/alp
Researchers at Vanderbilt University developed this mathematics program
example of a curriculum using authentic tasks. While originally developed
upper elementary grades, the curriculum has been successfully used for
school students with disabilities. Web: http://peabody.vanderbilt.edu/projects/funded/jasper/Jasperhome.html
Teaching for Understanding
David Perkins, co-director of Harvard’s Project Zero from 1972 to
explains why teaching for understanding is important and provides ideas
teachers. Web: http://www.pz.harvard.edu/Research/TfU.htm
WISE, the Web-based Inquiry Science Environment
WISE projects and curricula are designed to complement school coursework
meet National Science Education Standards. Each project includes
that are divided into inquiry steps. WISE employs cooperative learning
been used in inclusive settings. Authors Christine D. Bremer and
Morocco are with NCSET and Education Development Center, Inc.,
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This report was supported in whole or in part by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, (Cooperative Agreement No. H326J000005). The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, and no official endorsement by the Department should be inferred.
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