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What is understanding? And how do you teach it?

August 18, 2011

For the past several years, I’ve had students complete this activity for the second day:

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I love this activity for a number of reasons. One, it’s a great way to get to know students without having them fill out another “get to know you” form. Two, it is a great introduction to metacognition. Today, I had four great volunteers bring describe the ideas they thought they understood well, Football blocking, soccer, Making Waffles, and then two that I usually don’t hear: the structure of the atom, and the equation F=ma+mg.

In each case, I ask the students to describe how they learned the idea asking questions along the way—if I memorized the rule book to soccer, would you say I understood this idea? What is the coach doing to help you learn? How do you know that you’ve really masted soccer?

As always, the more than 80% of students choose to say they understand something well that they did not learn in the traditional 8-3 school day. And this always generates an interesting conversation. This year, the conversation was made even better by this video:

Students noticed so much in the video—how happy the person is learning everything, how he’s always getting coaching from experts, but he’s also always doing things, they also notice how few mistakes he makes and we talk about how much footage must have been left on the cutting room floor. Then when I push them a bit, they also see that not once is he doing anything in a school. One student even said “that’s because he know’s he’ll learn more outside of school.”

And as always this conversation gives me hope and leaves me sad at the same time. I think students are starting to see that the key to learning is developing a love for what you are doing, jumping in and getting actively engaged, always wanting to know why you are doing any particular thing and seeking out a great coach. But at the same time, I think some students see little hope of achieving this in their day to day lives because of an 8-3 world places countless demands on their time, calls on them to switch activities rapidly, rarely cares about their interests, and doesn’t always invite active engagement. So they withdraw, and settle for letting themselves be motivated by the grade, and saving their true, deeply interested selves for their afternoon sport or hobby.

This year, I want to make physics a feel more like a 3-5 joyous endeavor, and less of an 8-3 required drudgery.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Alexander Rosenwald permalink
    August 19, 2011 10:37 am

    I shared this post with my wife, an English Department supervisor and teacher, and she loves your ideas about getting to know students and forcing them to think about learning and the learning process. This year, she is teaching a support class for students who have failed our state high school proficiency tests, and she is thinking about integrating an activity like yours into her introductory unit to show these kids (who are usually disenfranchised, disillusioned and generally unhappy about school) that they do have the capacity for learning and understanding, and to help them get on an academic path that will allow them to graduate and succeed.

    Keep up the great work.

    • August 20, 2011 9:01 pm

      This is a very interesting idea. I like this a lot, and may try some variation on this the near future.

  2. August 19, 2011 12:07 pm

    I’d love to put that last sentence on my wall so I could see it everyday.

  3. August 19, 2011 2:53 pm

    A thoughtful exercise, John, thanks. We’ve had some conversations about this in class, but it’s nice to see how you let the ideas grow from the kids up, making it so much more genuine. I find myself wondering when would be the best time to do the exercise; right now, I’m thinking it’s about three days before frustration comes knocking! (My Grandfather always said that he liked his bread toasted until it was black, the 3 seconds less.) Very nice; thanks again.

    I only watched the video once, but I don’t think I’d show it in class. It’s just way too, well, nearly offensive in how unrealistic it is. I get to travel around the world and have everyone dote on me? Sign me up. Did any of the kids pick up on that?

  4. Megan permalink
    August 19, 2011 5:01 pm

    Can I steal this idea of getting to know kids? It’s my first year at a new school, and I think I’d like to set a new standard for myself!

    • August 20, 2011 9:07 pm

      I’d be happy to chat with you about this. Let me know. It’s really hard to not get all the A level standards in my class, and I actively seek out those who are struggling with them, so I rarely worry about students who are failing.

  5. August 20, 2011 7:38 pm

    Getting kids to think about things in which they excel is a great idea. Not related specifically to your post, but did you observe any differences between how the girls did on this task compared to the boys? I would love to know if there differences between the ease with which boys and girls do this… especially since it is given within the context of a physics class. To the point of your post though: I really like the idea of having kids think through an area of mastery and then using that to create a model of how to achieve mastery in a new content area. It seems when we face something new and different, it helps to try and map it onto something we know… especially if it’s something we know we do well. What a great way for your students to start the year.

  6. Debra Walker permalink
    November 1, 2011 11:56 am

    Please keep us posted on how you transform you Physics class! I teach 5th grade special needs children and am always interested in way for them to grow their mindset.

  7. marie permalink
    November 2, 2011 5:54 pm

    I just think that what you said about being sad that kids do not think they can have fun and be passionate about what they do at school so right! I wonder why the education system does not implement such ideas as yours as it would help to put it in the curriculum for contemporary teaching rather than going with the same old balance of power dynamics. I can see my son being so bored at school that he doesn’t want to go some days and want to stay home and study as the class does not seem interesting for him. So if New Zealand can take advice from what you do guys in other countries, there will be hope for our kids.

  8. Jim Doherty permalink
    November 5, 2011 10:23 am

    I ran across this article ( this morning and had small breakthrough in my sense of how to incorporate Dweck’s mindset ideas.i am interested in your opinion ( and anyone else who wants to chime in) on this. It occurs to me that if I want to take advantage of this internal error checking response that it is vital for student to actually KNOW that they have made an error. Does it strike you, or anyone else, that it might be feasible to have assessments in my math class where the answer is explicitly given and it is the students’ job to arrive at this right answer? It made me think of my high school science labs in physics where we knew what we were supposed to see in our data, like the acceleration due to gravity, and we had to be more and more careful in our measurements to approximate this ‘right’ answer. I do not know how I could do this all the time in my algebra, calculus, and statistics classes, but I might be clever enough to do this periodically. Any thoughts?

    • November 8, 2011 10:53 pm

      I’m sorry it took me so long to reply to this, but yes, I think it’s critical that a student figures out he/she made a mistake as soon as possible. That’s why I’ve switched to giving students instant feedback opportunities where they go and give themselves feedback from an answer key right after taking an assessment.

      But in regard to the labs you talk about where you try to verify a particular constant, like the gravitational field strength of 9.8\frac{\textrm{N}}{\textrm{kg}}, I would suggest that these labs aren’t really examples of great science teaching. It’s very rare in science that you are simply trying to measure a quantity in real science that someone already knows, or that you know exactly what the measurement should be and can calculate some sort of “percent error” in your measurement—I find it particularly distasteful when the percent error is tied to a student’s grade, since often the tools we use in high school labs create large uncertainties, and this tempts students to fake data to get a better grade.


  1. What is understanding? And how do you teach it? | ERLA lärande |

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