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’. 🙂


Are you a “Jugaad” in the Classroom?

I’m currently reading a book called Jugaad Innovation, authored by Radjou, Prabhu and Ahuja.  “Jugaad” in Hindi means ingenious solutions to problems or turn adversity into opportunities.  The six guiding principles behind the Jugaad Innovation are a)  seek opportunity in adversity, b)  do more with less, c)  Think and act flexible, d)  Keep it simple, e) Include the margin, f)  Follow your heart.  I’ve seen different jugaad-in-action classrooms and schools all over the world- from the biggest things like having a non-traditional approach to education and starting an education revolution, to the little things like using old mineral water bottles as pencil holders.     Big or small, they equally inspire me to be a classroom innovator.

As I read through the different stories of individuals and companies who succeeded through innovation, this line made an impact on me:

“When you listen to your customers, you merely react to needs; when you empathize with customers, you anticipate their needs; but when you truly love your customers, you surprise them by introducing them to products they can’t even fathom.”–  Mauro Porcini, 3M Head of Global Strategic Design

This made me ask:

  • How often do we surprise our students?
  • What do we do to make our students go ‘wow’?
  • What something new do we do in the classroom?
  • How often do we do something new in the class?
  • How is innovation celebrated in our class?
  • Are there any new ideas we are willing to fight for?
  • What ideas do we have that seem outrageous but are helpful?
  • Have you done anything risky for the betterment of the students?
  • Do we follow our hearts in the classroom?
  • How else do we show our love for our students?


I think we educators should consider ourselves not only as people who facilitate the class, but as artists who are capable of designing and engineering to solve problems, to do something for the marginalized, and to do something…inspiring– not only for our students, but for everyone else who cares.

Maybe the true signs of love for students are not just measured by how much we listen and feel for them.  Love for students is also measured by how we apply creativity in the classroom- to think out of the box and go out of our comfort zone for solutions that will address the issues in the classroom despite limitations, risks and personal struggles.

Are you a ‘jugaad’ in the classroom?