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Teaching for Enduring Understanding

Crazy StaircaseEarlier this summer I discussed the idea of backward design, which comes from Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s excellent book Understanding by Design. Recall that backward design is a three-stage process, in which you as a teacher first identify your desired results for a class, then determine what would count as evidence that your students did or did not reach those results, and finally, design your learning experience around your desired results and evidence.

The idea behind backward design is simple, yet it’s something I find myself relearning again and again. Even now, as I prep for the upcoming semester, I am tempted to focus on what I want my students to read, rather than what I want my students to understand.

It’s a testament to my perennial rediscovery of backward design that I wrote virtually the same sentence as above in my earlier post on backward design—and had forgotten I had done so. I trust (hope?) that I am not the only one who needs gentle reminders about the value of designing curriculum around understanding.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, Wiggins and McTighe provide some guidelines on determining what it is you really want students to understand at the end of the course. With a new semester nearly upon us, it’s worth revisiting their suggestions. As much as we might be loathe to admit it, not everything we teach is of equal value. So Wiggins and McTighe propose prioritizing learning goals. Imagine three levels, or concentric rings:

Enduring Understanding

The outer ring represents knowledge “worth being familiar with” for students. This is broad-brush, big-picture knowledge; think of it as contextual knowledge. The middle ring encapsulates knowledge and skills that are “important to know and do.” You can think of this ring as prerequisites for mastering the material. And finally, the smallest ring, the inner ring, represents “enduring understanding”—the fundamental ideas you want to students to remember days and months and years later, even after they’ve forgotten the details of the course.

To help filter the “worth being familiar with” from the “important” and “enduring understanding,” Wiggins and McTighe suggest four criteria:

  1. “To what extent does the idea, topic, or process represent a ‘big idea’ having enduring value beyond the classroom?”
  2. “To what extent does the idea, topic, or process reside at the heart of the discipline?”
  3. “To what extent does the idea, topic, or process require uncoverage?”
  4. “To what extent does the idea, topic, or process offer potential for engaging students?”

Note the word “uncoverage” here. I’ll explore the idea of uncoverage more fully in a future ProfHacker post, but for now think of uncoverage as the opposite of coverage. It’s depth over breadth. It’s not how much material we cover, it’s how deeply we uncover it, how deeply we dig down to the core principles or processes of our discipline, of which we want our students to have a lasting—enduring—understanding.

[Crazy Staircase photo courtesy of Flickr user Frank Kovalchek / Creative Commons Licensed]

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