The education landscape has significantly changed over the past few years. But the change has become drastic ever since the COVID-19 pandemic. From schools asking students to stay off devices to asking them to log in to devices, we have certainly come a long way. This change has been extremely challenging for educators.
Many students today are very comfortable with technology, and they know how to find information on the Internet. They may even be better at finding such information than their teachers. However, no teacher needs to feel threatened by this fact. Because the role of a teacher shouldn’t be to impart knowledge and information to students but rather to drive understanding. Before diving into what that would entail, let us see what understanding is.
What is understanding
The Teach for Understanding Project by the Harvard Graduate School of Education defines understanding as being “able to perform flexibly with the topic— to explain, justify, extrapolate, relate, and apply in ways that go beyond knowledge and routine skill. Understanding is a matter of being able to think and act flexibly with what you know.” While that is a lot of words, the basic idea is this – understanding involves the learner to do something more with the information than just remembering and recalling it. If you are a teacher, however, this insight is not at all new. This is what Bloom’s Taxonomy has been saying all along.
Aim for the Higher-Order Learning Objectives
Bloom’s Taxonomy states that there are different levels of learning. The highest level of learning is to create, not merely to remember. Sadly, education in our country often stops at the level of remembering or understanding. While Mathematics does involve a lot of analysis and application, the highest two levels of learning are rarely, if ever, touched upon. Evaluation and creation touch at the heart of what it means to think and act flexibly with what you know.
Consider the example of literary analysis. A student may be able to use the Internet to find a list of themes in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. But a successful student shouldn’t just know what the themes in a story are, but rather be able to identify the themes just by reading the story. If Shakespeare were to write a new story today that nobody else in the world has read, would the student be able to find the themes that are present in that story? Being able to do so would be an example of a higher-order learning objective.
Knowing facts is obsolete in the digital era
Consider the nature of work today. Knowledge workers need to constantly unlearn many things as newer technological tools are introduced each day. Many teachers themselves are struggling to learn how to navigate newer technologies. Knowledge is no longer static but rather extremely dynamic. In such a context, having knowledge will not help students succeed. Successful people will be those who can constantly unlearn information and learn new information. To produce such students, the focus shouldn’t be on teaching isolated facts, but rather the focus should be on teaching how the student can make sense of the facts.
Knowing when the Revolt of 1857 happened is not at all relevant or valuable in today’s world. Students can find the information on the Internet within fractions of seconds. What is far more valuable is for students to be able to understand the factors that led up to the event. If students can draw out implications for organizations on how to avoid revolts, or how to successfully implement projects based on the facts from the Revolt of 1857, that would be a far more valuable and ever-relevant skill for today’s economy.
How do we implement this in our classrooms?
Implementing this change of focus in the daily classroom should not be too difficult. In fact, as James Clear argues in his best-selling book, “Atomic Habits,” even a one-per cent change is sufficient if it is over a long enough period. So, what would be that one-per cent change when it comes to teaching for understanding? Here are two simple suggestions that can easily be implemented right away.
Ask Simple Questions
One such change could be to ask students a simple question each time they are taught something. “What do you think about that?” Or perhaps, “Why do you think this is important to know?” When students actively engage with the knowledge they are gaining, their minds are working to integrate this new knowledge into existing knowledge. Moreover, the students are learning and practising the skills of acting flexibly with what they know.
Think differently about extra-curricular activities
Other strategies to implement teaching for understanding in classrooms could be to make students participate in various “extra-curricular activities.” In fact, we need to rethink our definitions and beliefs about such activities. Some of the very critical 21st-century competencies such as communication and collaboration are built into the very nature of extra-curricular activities. Activities such as sports could teach them 21st-century character qualities of persistence or leadership far better than any classroom could.
Do we need teachers in the era of Google and Wikipedia?
In the final verdict, the answer is a resounding yes. We absolutely need teachers. Because understanding is not merely knowing things, but rather knowing what to do with the knowledge.