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Understanding, Knowing, and Doing

understanding, knowing, doing = participatory culture

CC image posted at Flicker by Thomas Hawk

This week I’ve been contemplating the difference between the words “understanding, knowing, and doing” in a course objective template I’m using, and the implications of those differences in how course standards are written and interpreted.  Taking a Constructivist viewpoint, I have also identified words that signal key objectives in a typical, community college course standard in order to work toward a successful, student-centered model of a first-year writing class, structured on the book I spoke about last week, Understanding by Design. How key words are interpreted become the basis for a robust course outline.

Understanding is defined, in Understanding by Design, as the long-term and transferable goal that drives true learning. What we thoroughly understand stays with us as a building block for future learning that transposes itself over time and space. If, for instance, a person learns that there are numerous ways (and no single right way) to approach a problem; that as an individual, his or her creative process may be different from someone else’s; that his opinion is valued; and that her first attempt is only practice, that person is well on their way to becoming successful in school, at work, and in life.

Unfortunately, many students arrive in college writing classrooms with a more ingrained understanding― that they can’t write. Even though they effectively communicate verbally with family, peers, and employers on a daily basis, emphasis on “correct” writing has devalued not only students’ writing products, but also their language codes and social cultures (Shaughnessy 92). One can certainly see that by making a long-term goal that is seemingly both unneeded and unreachable; little motivation to succeed will result. With broad, transferable goals and deep understanding of the purpose and process of writing, hopeful teachers believe that, given the right tools, even basic writing classes can confer an acceptable level of success to each student.

Knowing is the word used in Understanding by Design to identify the attainment of skills required to accomplish a task or solve a problem.  Teachers, of course, can’t guarantee that all students will become excellent writers, but they can provide the necessary tools for each student to do their best.  The basic skills needed for proficient college writing that Mina Shaughnessy discusses in her 1977 book, Errors and Expectations, including handwriting, punctuation, and spelling, are still recognized today by experts Henry Jenkins and the Carnegie Corporation as essential. Along with the basics, however, there are new technological skills, social skills and ethical frameworks that are necessary for students to function in today’s participatory culture. The long list of “how tos,” however, should be refined and prioritized to provide individual students with the power and self-confidence to participate effectively in school and life.

I went to college, but I learned to write by reading – and writing. Daniel Pinkwater

Doing inspires self-confidence, and practice perfects the end product. This is why many experts bemoan the lack of writing practice students are currently getting in school. Because of new curriculum reforms driven by student’s inadequate preparation for college writing, most standards will now be including more writing practice, both in writing classrooms and across disciplines. The Carnegie study linked above discusses the transferable skills developed through reading and writing.  Writing, as well as reading, the authors say, “is a predictor of academic success and a basic requirement for participation in civic life and in the global economy” (3). The metacognitive skills acquired through the writing process, experts say, are equally important as the written product itself.


Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). “Writing next: Effective strategies to improve writing of adolescents in middle and high schools” – A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York.Washington, DC:Alliance for Excellent Education. Retrieved from  (June 6, 2012).

Jenkins, Henry. “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century.” Retrieved from  (June 6, 2012).

Pinkwater, Daniel. Retrieved from

Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors & Expectations. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.


ODU Faculty Summer Institute (and more)

Backward design is a powerful theory. While jogging along the Elizabeth River this morning with my dog Stretch, it occurred to me that backward design, a course design strategy espoused by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book Understanding by Design, was evolving into a web of interconnectiveness permeating all of my thought processes this summer.  This became apparent to me in several ways this week; first, as I work to turn the theory into practice by designing course objectives for several writing classes; then, during the ODU Faculty Summer Institute sponsored by the Center for Learning and Teaching; and finally, as I reflected this morning on how to order the many tasks ahead as I plan for graduation in the fall.

seagull community

Image posted at Flicker by Jonathan Kos-Read

Synthesizing the lofty course standards for writing classes provided by institutions into condensed and prioritized goals achievable in a classroom of individuals with varying levels of abilities and aptitudes has proven to be a time-consuming, yet rewarding task for this neophyte. The recursive process began for me, after reading McTighe’s and Wiggins’ book, by reading course syllabi written by instructors at various institutions and reflecting on the philosophies of the teachers that I envisioned behind the printed words in their course objectives. Their tones ranged from poetic to mind-numbing; some even seemed threatening.

Most of these class objectives are certainly gleaned from years of experience and the desire to communicate clearly to students what the instructor intends to teach them over the course of the semester, as well as satisfy institutional standards.  McTighe and Wiggins, however, suggest that by examining the nouns and verbs in the academic jargon of standard objectives, the “big ideas” and questions can more easily be turned into prioritized classroom objectives and activities that result in deep understanding, rather than just surface knowledge and content coverage.  This is the goal of my summer studies and why this week’s conference was so meaningful and pertinent to me.

On Tuesday morning, Dr. Tara Gray, the keynote speaker for the Faculty Summer Institute began by encapsulating the backwards design theory into the overarching theme of the conference; a thoughtful, goal-oriented pedagogy that promotes ongoing assessment and meaningful activities over a teacher-centered lecture “performance.” She presented twelve steps to facilitate an inspiring and interactive classroom.  Dr. Gray spoke like a teacher in touch with her philosophy; love your students and take responsibility for your class, and she acted like an accountant, counting each classroom second like precious gold. More important, I watched as experienced teachers around the room sat up straight, leaned forward, asked questions, nodded, and tracked her eyes attentively.  In other words, they acted like we want our students to act during our classes.

Teachers are individuals just like students are, but I guarantee that as Dr. Gray moved about the room, she left a net of interconnectedness in her wake. I left that session filled with deep understanding and inspiration as well as a feeling of community with other teachers. Speaking with several teachers yesterday made me excited about graduating next semester and finally getting into the classroom.  That makes how I set goals, how I organize and prioritize my tasks, and how I create meaningful, academic artifacts which culminate in a useful and reflective portfolio my major academic focus.  That said, the value of deep understanding, personal responsibility, and community is my individual, life focus.

Academic and career advancement isn’t the most difficult task we and our students have to face in our society, life is. This brings me to the value of  life experience in any endeavor.  As we grow older, we should learn to work smarter rather than harder.  As a runner, I can say emphatically that physical strength and stamina will decrease much sooner than one thinks, but I can say equally emphatically that I won’t enjoy the beauty of an early-morning river run any less. I am a life-long learner, and I hope to be a life-long runner. Will I do things the same way I did them in my youth? No, but I’ll do them more reflectively. And therein lays my secret weapon; I can not only design backwards, but I can look backwards. I have a valuable history as well as a valuable future

Wiggins , Grant, and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. 2nd. Columbus: Pearson, 2005. Print.