If you ever crammed for exams, you may recall that experience as I do. When I prepared for a test in that way, I read, reread, copied notes, and repeated the material in an attempt to commit it to memory. However, I found within a matter of hours, days or weeks, after the exam, I could barely recall or discuss the information I studied. Perhaps you also had the experience of getting a good grade on that exam even though you didn’t understand the material on which you were tested.

Those experiences can give us insight into how it is that hundreds of thousands of students around the globe, who receive daily rote instruction – repeating, copying and memorising information – fail to become thoughtful readers, reflective writers or original, problem-solving thinkers. This article will unpack the great divide between rote learning and real understanding, which enriches intelligence, enhances performance and expands long-term memory. We will highlight teaching practices that foster understanding and enable teachers to recognise and assess it.

We encourage the reader to consider the following question:

(i) Can we afford to be satisfied with, basic literacy programs that do not provide a foundation for 21st-century education?

(ii) How would a 21st-century education, such as we describe here, affect the knowledge and talent all children can contribute to the well-being of their families, the productivity of their communities or the progress of industries that are essential for driving global development?

David Perkins, thought leader and research professor of Teaching and Learning at Harvard Graduate School of Education, has written extensively on understanding. His innovative work has the profound effect of leading us to seek answers to questions we never thought to ask. “How do we recognise understanding when we see it?”. This was the first of the many questions he ignited for me, as a literacy teacher. Was it possible my colleagues and I were not actually assessing our students’ understanding of what we were teaching? Were we equating our teaching with our students’ understanding? Was it possible that the exercise book pages we did on “Getting the Main Idea” were not helping our students organise, understand and remember what they read? If we were making faulty assumptions, what was the value of the education we were bequeathing to them? Perkins explains understanding this way:

Knowledge and skill in themselves do not guarantee ‘understanding’. People can acquire knowledge and routine skills without understanding their basis or when to use them. And, by and large, knowledge and skills that are not understood do students little good! … (Perkins, 1992). Students garner knowledge and skill in schools so that they can put them to work–in professional roles … and in lay roles [such as] – citizen, voter, parent … Yet rote knowledge generally defies active use … In short, we must teach for understanding in order to realize the long-term payoffs of education. (Perkins, 1993)

Perkins brings our attention to the risk that many schools today are functioning in a time warp, a time in which meeting the needs of the workplace, required learning a defined and circumscribed set of skills. In order to align the education we provide today with the local and global needs for nimble, flexible and creative minds, our teaching has to be retooled so that being educated mean being able to use rapidly evolving information to solve problems, improve outcomes and innovate, whether on the family farm or in the more full workplace. Retooling, as you will see, does not require technology. We submit the bandwidth that needs to be increased can take place in the sphere of teacher education.

We could start retooling instruction by examining the deeply ingrained belief that a teacher’s primary mission is to transfer information (curriculum) to the students and check if that information can be relayed back in some fashion. To change the paradigm; teachers need to recognise the distinction between teaching that results in students remembering and replicating information versus instruction that results in students having the ability and the initiative to actively use what they are being taught as each new situation requires. This means viewing understanding through a performance perspective. Teachers must ask for a demonstration of using the information to go beyond what a student has read, watched or heard. Because we live in a rapidly changing world of information and challenges, Perkins says, “Teachers need to teach for the unknown.” (Perkins, 2010) The discussion and suggestions that follow apply to low-resource schools as well as their more advantaged counterparts.

The Dual Agenda of Teaching for Understanding: Process and Product

What does instruction look like when the outcome we have in mind is for students to have the ability to use information with independence and flexibility? The following analogy might be helpful. If your goal is to learn to drive a car with skill and independence and you are handed a driver’s manual, do you think reading the manual would prepare you for the road? While you need the information the manual provides, it would not make you a competent driver prepared for all the vagaries of driving. You would need to learn the sequence of movements used to execute turns, judge the correct amount of pressure to apply to the gas pedal, manoeuvre your car in heavy traffic and much more. Memorising the manual does not make us drivers. To pass our driver’s test, we first have to learn the behaviours, the processes and the strategies required for driving and then be able to demonstrate the understanding we’ve acquired.

Teaching for this kind of understanding requires a curriculum with a dual agenda; we want students to produce tangible products at lesson’s end, but along the way, we need to give ample time and attention to teaching the processes (sequence of steps) required for the task. We are teaching the learner and the thing to be learned, the reader and the reading, the writer and the writing, the problem solver and the solution to the problem.

During the formative primary grades, when literacy learning (reading, writing, listening and speaking) comprises the dominant portion of the curriculum, in our retooled 21st-century instruction, teachers bridge knowledge and process. For example, teaching phonics elements begins with repeatedly connecting letters and their sounds. However, that knowledge will remain inert (and frequently does in many classrooms) unless the teacher transitions into first showing how to apply that knowledge to figuring out how to pronounce unfamiliar words and how to spell the words students want to write. Then youngsters employ those strategies during guided practice. Next, the teacher gradually releases responsibility to her students, so they can initiate the strategies they have learned and independently use their knowledge of phonics to read and spell unfamiliar words. (More on instructional strategies that support understanding from a performance perspective, is given below.)

Teachers bridge teaching curriculum and strategies (processes) in the same way when early-grade and higher-grade students are learning how to make meaning from text.  Reading for the purpose of “learning” the material, especially if the reader is not highly motivated to read it, seldom has lasting benefit; the details will be relegated to short-term memory. However, when teachers use each reading lesson to show readers what proficient readers do (Figure 1) to make meaning, students internalise those strategies and use them when reading independently.

Figure 1. Proficient Reader Strategies

Here are some generic questions that teachers use when teaching comprehension with a dual agenda of learning the material (product) and learning how to be a proficient reader (process):

          (Product)        What is the title of the story we read?

         (Process)       What does that title make you guess the story will be about? Which words made you think that? You said those words reminded you of an experience you had. That’s what good readers do. Good readers use their knowledge and experience to make predictions. (making connections with prior knowledge)

         (Product)        Who helped the [character’s name] in this part of the story?

        (Process)       The words do not tell us but why do you think she/he helped him? (infer) Let’s gather clues from what we read. We’ll see what those clues have in common. Then we can make an inference to explain his/her actions.

       (Product)        Read the next 3 pages of the story.

      (Process)      Before you read the following 3 pages of the story, tell us what you are going to do to help yourselves understand and remember what you read.

Questions and conversations that put the readers’ expanding repertoire of reading behaviours at the centre of the curriculum, teach learners to go beyond the text with confidence, competence and creativity. Four essential supporting pillars for the teaching the processes of learning as well as the products of learning in a retooled 21st-century classroom, are listed here and discussed further below. They are (1) ask questions that require original thought (higher-order-thinking); (2) make thinking while reading, writing, and problem-solving transparent by thinking aloud (3) provide lots of opportunities for students talk about their thinking (metacognitive dialogue) (4) demonstrate using strategies explicitly. (Koenig, 2010)

Teaching for Understanding is Brain-Based Learning

When teachers make the paradigm shift from rote teaching, which requires only remembering and replication, to practices the foster higher-order thinking (H.O.T), the learning curve is steep, and motivation is essential. Concrete, science-based evidence that shows why these new teaching and assessment practices have a profound impact on students’ learning, resonated with the rural Kenyan teachers we first piloted our work within 2014. We began by introducing the PET scan image of a functioning human brain. (Figure 2a.) These images and the explanation that follows became the touchstones that grounded our work:

Scientists can use imaging technology to capture pictures of what happens in the brain when we think. What they have learned gives us knowledge that can inform our teaching. The brightly lit parts of the PET scan indicate the areas of the brain where ideas and information are being processed. Glucose and oxygen are metabolised in those parts of the brain to form new brain cells (neurons). Drawings of enriched and impoverished neurons were also shown to represent the growth that takes place in students’ brains when they are stimulated to think about new information and experiences. (Figure 2b.)

Figure 2a. A PET scan image of a human brain.                       Figure 2b. Drawings of impoverished and enriched neurons.

Dr Judy Willis, an authority in the field of learning-centered brain research and the classroom strategies derived from that research, speaks clearly and compellingly about how brain research confirms the efficacy of teaching school-age children higher-order processing skills that activate neural networks. Willis explains, ”it is only when multiple neurons connect through branches (axons and dendrites) that a memory is stored and retrievable. When we provide students with the opportunities to apply learning in meaningful activities with formative assessments and corrective feedback, factual knowledge is consolidated, and those activities are moved from rote memory into related memory banks instead of being pruned away from disuse” (Willis, 2011).

Hi-impact Practices That Support Teaching for Understanding in the Classroom:

Understanding requires acting upon knowledge with original thinking. Think about it. If your idea comes from between the lines and is not on the page, you’re in the realm of higher-order thinking. Such risky business requires a few safety nets.

  1. Clarifying text at the literal level with developing readers – The retooling of teaching practices, we referred to earlier, requires changing the role literal comprehension plays in reading instruction. Instead of those who, what, when and where questions being the main event in the lesson, they become the prelude to the good stuff because higher-order thinking takes root in the text at its literal level. The one thing that separates a well-conceived inference from a wild guess is the information on the page. Extended, creative thinking springs from the data in the text. Therefore, before students, at any grade level, begin delving into the material at hand, ask for volunteers to take turns retelling what they read. Invite anyone who has a different recollection of the information or events, to locate the words that support what they are saying. By the time the verified retelling is complete, all the students will have their misconceptions or lack of understanding clarified, and the stage will be set for extended thinking.
  1. Defining text at the literal level with emerging readers – The teacher can address challenging words, vocabulary concepts, figures of speech, unfamiliar syntax and necessary background knowledge while reading aloud and thinking aloud on the first reading. This is especially critical for students who are second language learners. When thinking aloud, the teacher ponders the text and enlists all things visual, concrete and familiar: drawings, book illustrations, objects, translations of keywords to common languages and connections to prior knowledge and experience.
  2. Reading and thinking aloud – With the groundwork laid for literal understanding, teachers, on subsequent readings, model strategies while reading aloud. Students emulate their teacher and are eager to share their own higher-order thinking as well. Except for summarising, a more cognitively advanced skill, early-grade students ask questions, make predictions and other inferences, compare and contrast and get the messages that relate to their daily lives. However, when tasked with comprehending tough text, they are unlikely to use similar critical analysis without teacher direction. That is why it is so essential for teaching to be a transaction between teacher and students. We need to know what is being received so we can provide the support needed along the way to proficiency and independence.
  3. The gradual release of responsibility – After modelling and thinking aloud that targets one or two key strategies, explicit instruction on the use of those strategies, continues as follows:
  • Recall and name the strategies modelled.
  • Explicitly unpack the steps within the strategy.
  • Engage students in solving problems that require using the strategies being taught, starting with the whole class, and proceeding to paired work and finally to independent practice.
  • Guide application across the curriculum and in real-life situations.
  • Step back and give students space to initiate strategies without teacher direction.
  1. Classroom climate – Process instruction requires nurturing the learner in an environment that supports flexibility and risk-taking. Teachers explain and model that they value mistakes and not-knowing for the opportunities those times provide for learning and growing. They demonstrate and speak explicitly about the Habits of Mind (e.g., accuracy, flexibility, thoroughness and persistence) that make people very successful at the things they love to do. (Costa, 2008)
  2. Teacher/student transactions – Positive teacher and student relationships are more likely to have above average effects on student achievement. (John Hattie, 2009) Four teacher behaviours that relate directly to supporting students’ understanding are:
  • Prompts that engage children in problem-solving. Instead of searching the room for a correct answer, ask: How can you help yourself figure out this word? Is there information here that can help you with this question? Where will you look first?
  • Responses to children that give them a chance to think and tell more:
    • Wait 3 or 4 seconds before calling on anyone and wait 3 or 4 seconds before responding to their answer.
    • Neutral responses like, “That’s interesting.”, “Hmmm” encourage students to extend their answers.
  • Framing H.O.T questions with the words, “What do you think…” signals students that they are not expected to remember or retrieve the answer.

Evidence-Based Assessments – Demonstrations of Understanding

When we view understanding through a performance perspective, our formative assessments require students to demonstrate they can use the information and strategies that have been taught. The revised Bloom’s Taxonomy (Bloom, 2018) provides a comprehensive list of verbs teachers can use to prompt and assess intermediate and secondary students’ demonstrations of understanding. Verbs such as: rephrase, organise, compare, conclude and design, require students to demonstrate their use of the knowledge they have gathered.

Figure 3. Questions: From Recall to Demonstrations of Understanding

Figure 3. demonstrates the use of simple text generated by primary level students, for creating higher-order questions. To answer those questions, students are required to use the text in the ways indicated in parenthesis, as opposed to repeating or remembering what was written.

Ways to Gather Evidence of Understanding for Formative Assessments

  1. Reading Response Journals – Depending on students’ abilities, journals can be used to draw, map, list and write responses to reading.
  2. Writing tasks – Assigning and collecting tasks that ask for demonstrations of understanding that can be used for a portfolio to be shared with parents.
  3. Reading aloud and thinking aloud in a small group setting – During an activity period, the teacher observes selected students.
  4. One-to-one conferences – Brief check-in to assess progress and needs.
  5. Projects – Problem-solving explorations based on students’ interests that require an integration of skills and strategies.
  6. Think-pair-share visits – Opportunities to listen-in on students while they process what was just taught.
  7. Student-guided discussion – Students use a practised protocol with assigned roles while the teacher facilitates but does not lead.

If Not Now, When? If Not Us, Who?

Some terrific ideas that are radical departures from the past do catch fire. Not many resisted the telephone when it came along. Few people said “No,” to giving up phones that attach to a wall, when they were offered a very dissimilar, but much more complicated incarnation of the phone that could fit in their pockets. Yet many decades of experience and study strongly endorse teaching that honours and nurtures the potential within every child, but for the most part, schools cling to stifling century-old ways that leave children behind. Teaching for understanding is one of the advances that would release teachers and children for, what a great mentor of mine called, “human learning”.

A clear-eyed examination of the resistance that faces the kind of change we have been discussing has to focus on the daunting array of challenges facing concerned stakeholders. Some of those constraints on making progress are subtle and self-imposed while others are institutional and seemingly intransigent. If given a chance to pick my battles among the low-hanging fruit, I pick time constraints. When faced with choosing between extending instruction to make time for turning students on to the power of their minds and their academic abilities or continuing to make space for time-honoured drills and time-sensitive test preparation, I ask, “How is that working for you?”

The teachers I have collaborated with in the U.S., Ethiopia and Kenya, fuel my confidence and optimism that with teacher education that provides for a long arc of deep learning, the excellent idea of teaching for understanding, proficiency, creativity and autonomy, will become a reality.

About the Author:

Rhoda Koenig

Rhoda Koenig

Rhoda Koenig is an independent literacy consultant based in Huntington, New York. She brings her extensive background as a skilled teaching practitioner, curriculum designer, staff developer, teacher educator and cognitive coach to her collaboration with educators in the U.S. and in under-funded countries. As the founder of Creating Master Teachers, she has brought her empowering early-grade teacher education model and resource binder Read Think Write: A teachers’ guide to creating thoughtful early grade readers and writers to schools in Ethiopia and Kenya. Rhoda’s book Learning for Keeps: Teaching the strategies essential for creating independent learners (ASCD, 2010), provides the broad vision and specific demonstrations needed to demystify the complex processes of reading, writing and problem-solving.


  1. Bloom, B. (2018). Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy Process Verbs, Assessments, and Questioning Strategies. Retrieved from www.cloud.edu/assetrs/pdfs/assessment/revised-blooms-chart.pdf
  2. Costa, A.L., & Kallick, B. (Eds). (2008). Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
  3. Hattie,J.(2011,March18),Teacher-StudentRelationships:http://blog.longwood-edu/visiblelearning/2011/03/01.teacher-student-2/
  4. Koenig, R. (2010). Learning for Keeps: Teaching the Strategies Essential for Creating Independent Learners. Alexandria,VA: ASCD.
  5. Pearson, P., David, L.R., Roehler, J.A., Dole, & Duffy,G.G. (1992). Developing Expertise in Reading Comprehension. In S. Jay Samuels and Alan Farstrup (Eds.) What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction, 2nd Edition. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
  6. Perkins, D.N. (2010). Teaching for Understanding (Harvard GSE) “How might we educate our students for an uncertain future”. [Vimeo file]. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/37158826
  7. Perkins, D.N. (1993). American Educator: The Professional Journal of the American Federation of Teachers.17(3), 8, 28-35.
  8. Willis, J. (2011). Understanding How the Brain Thinks. Edutopia.


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