- “Put Understanding First” in Education Leadership by Wiggins and McTighe
- How People Learn, chapter 3
“Put Understanding First” by Wiggins and McTighe discusses the need for not only teaching for acquisition, but meaning and transfer as well. We’ve talked about this a few times in class, and it’s always interested me because I think that many schools are edging out meaning and transfer because that isn’t tested on standardized tests, and as a result, schools are churning out poorly prepared students. I was glad to see the authors give examples of how to successfully plan a unit in acquisition-meaning-transfer and especially glad to see the examples were math and science, the two subjects I think are probably the most difficult to do that sequence in. Their discussion of rethinking the instructional sequence caught my attention because the way that education is set-up now, if students are disinterested in the content (or don’t understand), they won’t/can’t climb up that metaphorical ladder to transfer and understanding. I had never considered that acquisition shouldn’t be first, because even the classes I feel I’ve had that emphasized meaning and transfer as well have always started with acquisition. It’s definitely something to think about. The math example hit home because I remember the mean/median/mode unit and I remember hating it. I think the idea of having students figure out which is best to calculate their grade is such a good one; I would have probably actually cared to learn it if I knew my grades were at stake.
I think one of the best classes I’ve ever had that really emphasized meaning and transfer as well as acquisition was United States History in eighth grade. All the history classes were split into boys versus girls, and those who wanted to could campaign to be generals (I was one of the girls’ generals, and man, was I proud). Each side had three generals, and throughout the semester, we engaged in “battles,” (i.e., teachers hid trivia questions around the eighth grade wing which required us to learn how to use databases to find the answers) that gained us victories, and we also were given “hypothetical” battle situations which we worked out as teams (they were based after real battles, but we didn’t know that). They also let us reenact battles with water balloons, which in addition to being fun, as also a learning experience because we had to go through the battles and answer so many correct questions before they just allowed us our fun. At the end, those with the most points or “battle” victories won, and well, not to brag, but the teachers said they had never before seen a trouncing like we did to the boys that year. But at the end of the day, not only could I tell you dates of battles, but I knew the cause-and-effects and the larger social contexts. Everyone did phenomenally on that unit, even those that hated history, because it was fun and engaging and gave us a wider contexts to place the facts in. However, that took place over an entire semester, and was rigorous for them to plan/carry out and took a lot of cooperation, and that might be difficult for some schools to do because of lack of staff and money.
Ultimately, I’m relieved that there are educators that realize our educational system is in trouble. I think we’ve painted ourselves in the corner, so to speak, with assessments and this relentless drive to get the best grades. Schools are producing ill-prepared students who fall flat on their faces in college because they don’t know how to critically think. Something clearly has to be done.
Chapter 3 of How People Learn discusses factors that lead to successful transfer of learning to other contexts. The chapters introduced several factors, but there were a few I thought were pretty interesting. The first is the factor of initial learning. Later on in the reading, the chapter brings up the idea of mastery of foundational concepts, and I think the two ideas really tie together; if, for example, a student is unable to grasp the foundational concepts, it’s going to hinder their ability to learn further, and ultimately, the ability to transfer it. I think a good example of this is math; if a student can’t master algebra, it’s going to make trigonometry really difficult (this is, perhaps, based on personal experience). Or, even, if a student isn’t understanding math, chemistry is going to be really difficult (hence prerequisites). I think another important point the chapter introduces is learning vs. memorizing. We’ve discussed this idea in the past, but I think it’s such an important one, and maybe that’s because I feel like in certain subjects, the only reason I did as well as I did is because I have a good memory. I wasn’t learning anything. If I’m just memorizing facts, the learning isn’t being transferred, and that is, as the chapter says, the ultimate goal of schooling. I was also particularly interested in the section of transfer between school and everyday life. What good is it to learn fractions if you can’t figure out a tip? Where I often got tripped up in math (I think everyone that has read a few posts of this blog now realizes that I was really atrocious at math) was that I saw absolutely no reason for sin, cos, and tan. Nobody ever put that into context for me, and to this day, I still have no idea what good that was. Acquisition is important, as is meaning, but transfer is what should be the ultimate goal of education.
I can’t for the life of me remember where I read it (it may have been for this class or 638 or one of my other classes), but I was reading recently that American schools were built upon the idea of preparing workers for factory work, and that is why it’s largely based on rote memorization. I’ve been stewing on that and it makes sense, because that is perhaps why transfer has never been emphasized because it wasn’t necessary. But now it most definitely is, and so it’s interesting that the educational system isn’t evolving with the times.