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New Framework for Instruction Outlined

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ATLANTA--A "pedagogy of understanding'' would enable students to engage in a range of performances to develop and demonstrate their grasp of a topic, researchers from Harvard University said here last week.

Reporting at the midpoint of their five-year project to develop and test a new way of teaching based on emerging knowledge about student learning, the researchers outlined a framework for classroom instruction that they said could form a cornerstone of teacher education and practice.

The framework includes topics that encourage students to go beyond factual recall and that relate to their lives; goals that explicitly state what it is students are to understand; performances in which they demonstrate their understanding; and ongoing assessments that allow students and teachers to develop and apply criteria for judging their performances.

The goal is for students to show--through writing, speaking, or other forms of exhibition--that they can use evidence, examples, and analogies to explain a topic, not simply to recite a dictionary definition of the topic, according to David N. Perkins, the co-director of Project Zero at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, who is directing the project along with two other Harvard professors, Howard Gardner and Vito Perrone.

"It may be that the dictionary is large,'' Mr. Perkins said here at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. "But unless the person went beyond that [simple] explanation, we would think the person did not understand.''

Mr. Perkins noted that the principles of the new pedagogy are "not startling,'' and share many features with other ideas about revamping instruction. However, the ideas represent a marked contrast with current practice. Most schools continue to rely on the traditional mode of teachers' imparting facts to passive students, noted Martha Stone Wiske, a research associate at Harvard.

"The principles of the project are a challenge to put into practice,'' she said. "They violate fundamental norms of schools.''

'The Very Stuff'

The project to develop the pedagogy of understanding comes on the heels of what has been called a "revolution'' in knowledge about cognition. In contrast to the view of students as empty vessels into which facts and skills are poured, the new research emphasizes that children actively "construct'' their knowledge, based on what they already know.

According to Mr. Perkins, the Harvard project differs from other cognitive research in its emphasis on performance.

"The general notion still is that engagement in activities is the way you build understanding, but attaining performances is not understanding itself,'' he said. "When we learn to explain and justify our explanations, we develop the very stuff of understanding. It's not just a means to an end.''

A Lesson on Justice

In outlining the framework, the researchers emphasized that the topics teachers select for students to understand must be chosen with care.

In addition, they pointed out, the understanding goals should communicate to students that they are expected to use evidence and prior knowledge to support their opinions, and the performances should allow them to do that.

And, they said, the assessments should be embedded in the learning process, not simply at the end of the process, in order to provide informative feedback to students.

As an example of a lesson based on the framework, Mr. Perkins cited one developed by an English teacher who asked students to read a number of novels, including To Kill a Mockingbird, Mutiny on the Bounty, and Inherit the Wind, to explore the question: Who determines justice, and how?

The topic was central to the subject matter, Mr. Perkins noted, because it is a key theme in the major works. At the same time, it is an important theme in the lives of adolescents, he said.

For her goals, the teacher wanted the students to understand the balance between individual and social responsibility, and the question of whose definition of justice should prevail.

To demonstrate their understanding, the students were asked to write about times they were treated unjustly or treated others unjustly; to read the novels and keep journals asking questions about their reading; and to show by the use of charts how the idea of justice was played out in the novels.

The students and teacher then collaboratively developed criteria for evaluating their work, and then applied the criteria to the work of their classmates.

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