Harvard Graduate School of Education | Project Zero

Teaching for Understanding

The Teaching for Understanding project was a five-year research program designed to develop and test a pedagogy of understanding. The project targeted the middle and high school years and focused on teaching and learning in four subjects (English, history, math, and science) and interdisciplinary studies. Since the project's inception, researchers and practitioners have collaborated to develop, refine, and test the pedagogy.

During the first three years, the collaborators developed a framework that stresses in-depth learning. This framework provides teachers with a language and structure for planning their curriculum and for discussing teaching for understanding with other colleagues and with their students. At its core is a performance view of understanding: If a student "understands" a topic, she can not only reproduce knowledge, but also use it in unscripted ways. For example, a student in a history class might be able to describe the gist of the Declaration of Independence in her own words; role-play King George as he reacts to different parts of it; or write out parts of an imagined debate among the authors as they hammer out the statement. These are called "performances of understanding" because they give students the opportunity to demonstrate that they understand information, can expand upon it, and apply it in new ways.

In addition to performances of understanding, the framework highlights three other key concepts: generative topics, understanding goals, and ongoing assessment. For teachers, attention to each of these aspects of instruction helps ensure that they will be focusing their time and energy on helping students to learn about those concepts, ideas, and skills that are most important to understand. For the students, this approach to teaching and learning enables them to apply their knowledge and skills flexibly in a variety of situations.

The project collaborators summed up their work in two books. The Teaching for Understanding Guide (Jossey-Bass, 1998) is a practical, hands-on book that explains the teaching for understanding framework and provides examples of how teachers can use the framework in their planning and teaching. Teaching for Understanding: Linking Research with Practice explains how and why the framework was developed.

Both The Teaching for Understanding Guide and Teaching for Understanding: Linking Research with Practice have been translated into Spanish, and the framework continues to be used as a professional development tool and curriculum planning aide in schools throughout the United States and in other countries.

Project Zero's Teaching for Understanding: Enhancing Disciplinary Understanding in Teachers and Students was supported by The Spencer Foundation.

Principal Investigators
    Howard Gardner (Harvard Graduate School of Education, Project Zero)
    David Perkins (Harvard Graduate School of Education, Project Zero)
    Vito Perrone (Harvard Graduate School of Education)

Project Manager
    Rebecca Simmons
    Martha Stone Wiske

Selected readings and materials:

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

Boix Mansilla, V., & Gardner, H. (1997, January). Of kinds of disciplines and kinds of understanding. Phi Delta Kappan, 78 (5), 381-386.

Gardner, H. (1990). The difficulties of school: Probable causes, possible cures. Daedalus, 119 (2), 85-113.

Gardner, H. (1991). The unschooled mind: How children think and how schools should teach. New York: Basic.

Gardner, H., & Boix Mansilla, V. (1994, February). Teaching for understanding within and across the disciplines. Educational Leadership, 51 (5), 14-18.

Gardner, H., & Boix Mansilla, V. (1994, Winter). Teaching for understanding in the disciplines—and beyond. Teachers College Record, 96 (2), 198-218. Paper prepared for the Conference on Teachers Conceptions of Knowledge, Tel Aviv, June 1993.

Grotzer, T. A. (1996). Math/Science matters: A resource book on research in math and science learning. For the Harvard Project on Schooling and Children and Exxon Education Foundation.

Perkins, D. (1991). Educating for insight. Educational Leadership. 49 (2), 4-8.

Perkins, D. (1992). Smart schools: From training memories to educating minds. New York: The Free Press.

Perkins, D. (1993). Creating a culture of thinking. Educational Leadership, 51 (3), 98-99.

Perkins, D. (1993). Thinking-centered learning. Educational Leadership, 51 (4), 84-85.

Perkins, D. (1993, Fall). An apple for education: Teaching and learning for understanding. American Educator, 17 (3), 8, 28-35.

Perkins, D. (1993, October). Teaching and learning for understanding. NJEA Review, 67 (2), 10-18.

Perkins, D. (1994, January). Do students understand understanding? The Education Digest, 59 (5), 21-25.

Perkins, D., & Blythe, T. (1994, February). Putting understanding up front. Educational Leadership, 51 (5), 4-7..

Perkins, D., Crismond, D., Simmons, R., & Unger, C. (1995). Inside understanding. In D. Perkins, J.L. Schwartz, M. West, & M. S. Wiske (Eds.), Software goes to school: Teaching for understanding with new technologies. (pp. 70-88). New York: Oxford University.

Perrone, V. (1991). A letter to teachers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Perrone, V. (1994, February). How to engage students in learning. Educational Leadership, 51 (5), 11-13.

Simmons, R. (1994, February). The horse before the cart: Assessing for understanding. Educational Leadership, 51 (5), 22-23.

Unger, C. (1994, February). What teaching for understanding looks like. Educational Leadership, 51 (5), 8-10.

Wiske, M. S. (1994, February). How teaching for understanding changes the rules in the classroom. Educational Leadership, 51 (5), 19-21.

Wiske, M. S. (Ed.). (1998). Teaching for understanding: Linking research with practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.