Trying to Teach for Understanding

Maybe it was due to my teaching experiences, or the amount of mistakes I make.  Continuous education and collaboration.  Reflecting every now and then.  Listening and observing. And taking risks.  I just feel like I’m finally ‘getting it.’

Throughout my teaching years, I had the tendency to design intricate formative assessments and have fun learning activities which were all engaging but deemed to be effortful, time consuming and confusing.  In the end, we have a room full of ‘colourful projects’ with a lot of teacher intervention.  Now I’m realizing that my practices before didn’t have enough space and effort for independence and learning.

Last September, I took an online course with Harvard Wide World.  The course was on Teaching for Understanding and they really helped me plan purposefully. I’ve been applying the Understanding by Design approach  but my experience with this course made me understand concretely what it really means.

Going through the course was a huge bulb light moment for me.  The course made me experience how engagements, formative assessments and summative assessments are linked.  I suddenly realized my mistakes in the past.  I knew that there were elements of inquiry in my teaching, but most of the time, I had the puzzle pieces but not the actual picture of the puzzle.  Or at times, I had the picture of the puzzle, but the puzzle pieces didn’t quite fit together.  I realized that when we teach for understanding, life is simpler yet experiences are more meaningful. Note that simplicity doesn’t mean things are easy.  Simplicity can be hard to design and requires creativity.  But one thing is for sure, simplicity brings clarity. Our teaching can be simple yet inquiry and understanding are there.  It’s like having a set of carefully designed beads, woven nicely to create an interesting bracelet that the whole class enjoyed making.  It’s not just about what the teachers can do to make the unit engaging.  It’s also about what the students do and understand for their learning to be successful.

 “Learning things backwards is usually simpler than learning them forwards.  If you have to learn a sequence of ABCD you would usually learn A first and then B and then C and then D.  This means that you are always moving from an area you know very well to an area you do not know…When you learn backwards, you learn D first and then C and then B and finally A.  In this way you are always moving forward into an area you already know.  At first learning things backwards may seem more complex but in practice turns out to be easier and simpler.”-  Edward De Bono

Applying what I’ve learned from the course, we prioritized D, which naturally led us to A, B & C.  We wanted the students to understand the concepts in the unit and apply their understanding in their own lives.  As it is a unit on beliefs and values, our goal was to help the students discover who they are by understanding what they believe and value (perspective), why their beliefs and values are important, what led them to believing such and the impact of their beliefs and values (causation).  We wanted them to become open-minded and respectful little people.  And of course along the way, develop thinking, communication, social and research skills.

For our pre-assessment, we asked questions bringing out the key concepts, the lines of inquiry, and of course their understanding of the central idea.


As we went through our inquiry (finding out), we had different engagements such as interviews, analyzing articles, group research, making our rubric, etc., to help us answer the teacher and student questions.  Along the way, we shared our understanding in various ways (sorting out). We were continuously reflecting on our skills, learner profile and attitudes.

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We used reflection planners (formative assessments) to help them reflect on their beliefs and values- as this is the goal.  We slowly filled the planner, one box at a time, provided and discussed feedback to ensure students were able to make the connections.  We were allowed to make mistakes and learn from them.


For their summative assessment, the students used their revised planners (student’s inputs + teacher’s feedback)  and independently shared what they believe and value, the cultural experiences that help shape such, the impact of their beliefs and values and their understanding of the central idea in different ways.  Some made videos, photo collages, books and some made stories- all leading to our goal.

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Was it a perfect unit?  NO. I don’t I’ll ever have one. However, I appreciate that this time, we have collaboratively designed the unit toward understanding.   The engagements, assessments and reflections clearly showed evidence of progress and growth.  The best part of all is that the students were aware of their own learning and development.  There was a lot of independence, choice and thinking in class.  Turns out it wasn’t only me who is ‘getting it’. 🙂



  1. Hi Katrina,

    Thanks for your response! I am an early childhood dual language teacher at Head Start in Peoria, Illinois, United States. I have also been a nanny for several families from India who live in Peoria. For a graduate course we are supposed to correspond with an early childhood professional from a country other than our own. Could you please ask a colleague there who teaches zero to eight-year old children if he or she would be willing to correspond with me for at least the next 5 weeks? If you find someone, could you post it here and then we can figure out how to exchange email addresses? If you don’t find someone, could you respond that you have not found someone yet?
    Thanks for any help!

    Liz Thomas


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