Teaching for Understanding (Part 3 => Performances of Understanding)

In earlier posts in this series on understanding, I analysed my students' perception of understanding, dove into my own evolving views on understanding, introduced the teaching for understanding framework and discussed some of the features of the framework. I encourage you to go through these posts before reading on...
As a refresher, the teaching for understanding framework is built around the following fundamental questions that teachers could ask themselves while planning and executing an instructional unit:
  1. What topics are worth understanding? [Generative Topics]
  2. What are the enduring concepts in these topics that need to be understood? [Understanding Goals]
  3. What are the overarching goals that teachers and children want to achieve over the course of the academic year? [Throughlines]
  4. How can teachers help children demonstrate their understanding? [Performances of Understanding]
  5. How can teachers gauge what children understand? [Ongoing Assessment]
In this short post, I will discuss the fourth element viz. performances of understanding.

Performances of Understanding

The performance view emphasises understanding as the ability and inclination to demonstrate what one knows by applying it in the world. The basic premise is that understanding is deepened, as well as made visible, by performing one's understanding. Think about learning to play a musical instrument, learning different strokes on the tennis court, driving a car, cooking a dish and so on... Unlike the first three elements of the framework, performances of understanding are student-centric and involve children being able to explain, interpret, analyse, extend, synthesise and apply their knowledge in a myriad of creative ways (Wiske, 1998).

Researchers working on implementing this framework in classrooms recognised that teachers, by and large, followed a progression of three categories of performances of understanding (Wiske, 1998).
  • "messing about" - initial, unstructured inquiry to draw children into the generative topic ; provides useful information to both the teacher and student on what they (the students) already know and are potentially interested in learning more about
  • "guided inquiry" - engages students in using modes of inquiry that the teacher sees as key to mastering the understanding goals ; the guidance provided by the teacher helps children integrate their growing body of knowledge and carry out more complex performances of understanding
  • "culminating performances" - can be projects, essays or presentations completed by students at the end of an instructional unit ; these must clearly demonstrate students' mastery of understanding goals
Here are a couple of examples from own teaching experiences that appear to fit the vision of performances of understanding as proposed by researchers. These examples are drawn from a time before I had learnt about this framework. In other words, I chose these activities because they seemed like good ideas to try out; not because there was any research basis to my decision!

First, after teaching the concept of tally marks to my fifth standard students, I gave the children the following problem statement:

Use tally marks to count the number of plants in our school ground. Be ready to discuss your findings when you return to class!

The children prepared their tables in class. Many of them decided to categorise plants into bushes and trees before setting out. On returning, I asked each child to compare his/her tally mark table with their partner's table. A lively whole class discussion on the reason for the discrepancies in numbers followed. By applying their initial understanding of tally marks to an actual situation, both the children and I were able to gauge their level of understanding through the way they approaches, analysed and discussed their solutions.

Second, when my ninth standard students were learning the fundamental trigonometric ratios, I engaged them in a two-part activity using the following problem statement:

Follow the guidelines on the sheets provided to build a clinometer. Use this clinometer to estimate the height of the flagpole on our school ground.

The first part was to build a clinometer (this activity was NOT explicitly tied to the understanding goals) and the second part was to use this clinometer to measure the height of the flagpole on our school ground (this activity was tied to the understanding goals). Having to practically measure the height of the pole using trigonometrical concepts that we had covered in class, pushed my children to demonstrate their understanding in ways that wouldn't have been possible through a regular pen-paper test or exam. There was the added benefit of this being a hands-on activity where the children had to use materials and carefully follow instructions to build the clinometer.

I would classify both these examples as being in the guided inquiry category.

Effective performances of understanding engage both students and teachers in work that ties clearly to understanding goals. The sequence of {messing about => guided inquiry => culminating performances} caters to creating, revising, improving and making mistakes freely on tasks that are simultaneously accessible yet challenging for the students.

In the next post (perhaps the penultimate post in the series), I will discuss the fifth and final element of the teaching for understanding framework - ongoing assessment.


Wiske, M.S. (1998). What is Teaching for Understanding? In M.S. Wiske (Ed.) Teaching for Understanding: Linking Research with Practice, pp. 61-86. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

~ o ~ x ~ o ~

I read the article quoted in this essay as part of the course EDU T543 Applying Cognitive Science Research to Learning and Teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The course was intended for those who wanted to develop thoughtful instructional designs for learning. These designs could be in the form of traditional lesson plans or in forms for a variety of other contexts, formal or informal, including massive open online courses (MOOCs), online learning, computer programs and so on. Many of the course examples were drawn from a K-12 context, but the principles apply broadly to life-long learning.


  1. 1. How would you rate the three categories of performance of understanding w.r.t the difficulty in effective planning & execution for teachers? (Read difficulty as complex, and effective as catering to each individual pupil)
    2. Can you think of any understanding goal whose mastery cannot be determined immediately at the end of an instructional unit, and can be gauged only much later? In such a case, would the culminating performance be redundant?
    Or lets put it this way- have you ever felt the redundancy of a culminating performance that you personally underwent in your academic/ professional life?

  2. (1.)

    "messing about" - difficult to plan and execute as the teacher is trying to pick up cues amidst unstructured inquiry so he/she needs to be intentional in the kinds of activities that they choose to give and very observant during the actual process ; pretty effective in catering to each pupil as he/she is free to try out different approaches in a low stakes context

    "guided inquiry" - difficult to plan but easier to execute if the planning is solid, again the teacher needs to be thoughtful in deciding the flow and activities that will be done or the execution will fall apart ; potential to not be as effective as messing about unless the teacher has systems around partners, groups or differentiation that will allow catering to each child

    "culminating performances" - this will take time to plan and evaluate and can be quite difficult as it is the broadest, the execution here is largely on the students ; can be highly effective if students are given freedom/flexibility to pick from a range of culminating performances, conversely can be pretty ineffective if all students are homogenised


    Yes, I am sure such understanding goals exist and I agree that a culmiinating performance may not be the best approach there. The research study was restricted to a classroom environment with a fixed curriculum/plan that teachers had to follow so that is probably why a culminating performance could always be designed. As an example, take a look at the 14 understanding goals in the previous post - some of them don't merit a culminating performance at all! Also, there can be intermediate understanding goals that build up to a bigger goal and that is the goal on which a culminating performance is based.

    An example of the redundancy (or absence) of a culminating performance that I personally underwent in my professional life will be covered in the last post in the series. There were some courses in college that had a namesake end-of-semester project that was supposed to be a culminating performance but wasn't designed well and carried such less weight that most students didn't see a value in labouring through it.


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