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Roots of Teaching for Understanding

The Teaching for Understanding framework has been widely used to plan, conduct, and assess teaching aimed at developing learners’ capacities to apply their understanding flexibly in varied situations. The framework derives from a multi-year collaborative research program that synthesized contemporary theories of pedagogy with analyses of effective classroom practice [1]. Both strands of research–theoretical and practice-based–draw on over three decades of studies of understanding, learning, and teaching conducted by researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero. Broadly, Teaching for Understanding or TfU is rooted in constructivist notions of the nature of knowledge, student cognition, and instruction. Talbert, McLaughlin and Rowan [2] describe constructivist teaching in the following way:

The constructivist view of effective classroom instruction is often called ‘teaching for understanding,’ and research on this topic has become a priority for educational policy makers. The importance of this form of teaching lies in its potential to enhance the kinds of cognitive outcomes for students that the American educational system has heretofore been notoriously ineffective at producing. While American schools have been relatively successful in engendering basic-skills achievement, they have not done well in promoting students’ success in tasks variously described as problem solving, critical analysis, higher-order thinking, or flexible understanding of academic subject matter- learning outcomes associated with teaching for understanding. (p.47)


[1] Published works include:

Blythe, T. (1998). The teaching for understanding guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wiske, M. S. (Ed.). (1998). Teaching for understanding. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wiske, M. S., Rennebohm Franz, K., & Breit, L. (2005). Teaching for understanding with new technologies. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wiske, M. S., & Perkins, D. N. (2005). Dewey goes digital: The wide world of online professional development. In C. Dede, J. P. Honan & L. C. Peters (Eds.), Scaling up success: Lessons learned from technology-based educational innovation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

[2] Talbert, Joan E., McLaughlin, Milbrey W., and Rowan, Brian. “Understanding Context Effects on Secondary School Teaching.” TEACHERS COLLEGE RECORD (Fall 1993) 45-68, as quoted in Teaching for Understanding: Educating Students for Performance by Ken Kickbusch.



  1. hepburn

    November 24, 2006 @ 4:18 pm


    This article has been most helpful to me as I am trying to find out what ‘constructionist theory’ is and also current research findings in Learning and Teaching as part of an Open University module for a Scottish Chartered teacher’s qualification.
    Many thanks to the contributors!

  2. John

    May 23, 2007 @ 12:13 am


    I’ve been looking for a resume text that talks about “teaching for understanding”, i think i found it. It’s very interesting and thank you for sharing!

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