Introducing the Understanding Ideal
to Students

You can think of the Understanding Module as an extended inquiry into the nature of students' disposition to seek and develop understanding and appreciation of the complexities of understanding. Consequently, initial work focuses uncovering what students' already know about what understanding is, what strategies and personal resources they have for developing understanding, and their awareness of when it is important and worthwhile to invest time and energy in trying to understand something. This background can provide you with useful information on which to build throughout the module.

Thinking about Thinking Activities

These initial activities ask students to identify their current ideas and thinking about understanding. Even though we all strive to teach for understanding and work actively to develop students’ understanding, students themselves may not have thought a lot about understanding per se. When they do think about it, it may be in terms of something one possess, as in a bit of knowledge, comprehension, or skill. In contrast, the understanding module focuses on what we call a "performance view" of understanding, seeing understanding as being developed and demonstrated by actually doing something with that knowledge and skill. Whatever students' ideas about understanding, these activities will let them bring those ideas to the surface for individual reflection, group discussion, and your own instructional pre-assessment. You may use one or all of these initial Thinking about Thinking activities. While the order isn't critical, many teachers like to start with the concept map activity to uncover students' ideas before further discussion. Others like to begin with a whole class discussion to first warm students up.


A Concept Map of Understanding. What is understanding? What can you do to help yourself understand something? This introductory activity is designed to raise these issues for discussion in class as well as to provide a glimpse into students' thinking about understanding. Students first construct a concept map of understanding individually. These can then be used as the basis for a class discussion and/or in the construction of a larger, whole-class concept map.

A Discussion about Understanding: What's something you understand well? This activity is designed as a way to collect data on students' thinking about understanding by drawing on their past experience of developing understanding. Students are asked to think of something they understand well, think about how they got their understanding, and finally to think about how they know they understand.

Introducing the Understanding Map

After students' initially ideas, questions, conceptions, and strategies about understanding have been uncovered, you will want to present the Understanding Map to the class. The map becomes both a visual and conceptual anchor for you and your students throughout the module by identifying the key thinking moves involved in determining understanding. The Understanding Routines also link to the Understanding Map.

The map consists of six areas or key moves for developing understanding:

  • Consider different viewpoints
  • Reason with evidence
  • Make connections
  • Describe what's there
  • Build explanations
  • Capture the heart and form conclusions

A question that helps to make each of these areas more actionable is also included on the map. As a class, you may want to add to these initial questions to develop additional prompts for thinking.

One way to present the Understanding Map is by connecting it to students' ideas and thoughts about Understanding that emerged from their own understanding maps. Tell students that these six areas represent some key actions people can take when they are trying to develop understanding. Of course, additional strategies and actions can also be useful. The map is not a complete list, just a strong starting point. You may want to ask students to think about how their ideas link to the six areas of the Understanding Map. Tell students that you will post the map on the wall so that they and you can refer to it often. Tell students that you will be talking about understanding and using the map in future lessons.