I have been writing about retooling my practice as a teacher and changing my focus towards understanding over coverage. I have long been considering this when looking at my students and their performances in my class. Skills, not content, have been my focus as a teacher but it always seemed to come up short regarding getting my students to become deeper thinkers.
The enthusiasm is definitely there. My students always love the courses and come out pumped to apply what they have learned. With AP Art History, in particular, students love looking at the art work and getting to know it. Some of them even have gone on to major in the field. Yet, I want them to have a deeper understanding of the works and also gain considerable mastery when looking at unfamiliar works and being able to contextualize them as the burgeoning professionals I hope they become.
In order to carry this out, a shift towards understanding has to occur. I spent this past summer at Project Zero Classroom at Harvard where I gained some insight into how to achieve this. In order to shift towards thinking for understanding, a few changes have to be made. First is the importance of establishing generative topics for each unit to not only serve as “hooks” for student interest, but also to use student curiosity to fuel their exploration, thinking, and learning about a topic. In order to support these generative topics, understanding goals must be established so that students, and teachers, can be oriented towards the tasks necessary for developing understanding.
Understanding, by definition, is an active application of learning which moves students beyond the scope of their knowledge. This is how repurposing, application, and creativity are used. This is also where I want to take my students – towards deeper learning.
In order to develop these understanding goals, I am leaning on two resources – the AP Art History framework and my CMMs (content mastery maps).
The CMMs I have been developing over several years which orient students on what content students should be responsible for in studying each unit. This, of course, falls short of understanding and still functions within the domain of coverage. Using this as a starting point, and reviewing the AP Art History framework (Big Ideas, Enduring Understanding and Enduring Knowledge statements), will help me redesign my course and bring it into line with understanding.
For example, I have taken each of the three “big ideas” from the framework and converted them into overarching understanding goals (or throughlines). Here is the result:
- Students will understand that artists manipulate materials and ideas to create an aesthetic object, act, or event. (What is art and how is it made?)
- Students will understand that art making is shaped by tradition and change. (Why and how does art change?)
- Students will understand interpretations of art are variable. (How do we describe our thinking about art?)
Overarching understanding goals are used as targets for what student understanding should look like over the course of the entire year. Understanding goals that are specific to each unit or topic are just that, specific targets for the content of a unit but also reinforce the overarching understanding goals.
The AP Art History course is spread out over 10 content areas (my current course design is to “cover” those 10 content areas in 12 units). I will be taking each unit and not only creating a generative topic, but also creating understanding goals for each unit.
To do this, I am starting with a mind map or idea web to lay out potential topics for study. I will then have a generative topic that I can use understanding goals to help push our students towards exploring. It is important to note that generative topics are not looking for a specific answer – there is no hard and fast “right” answer. Instead, we are looking at a particular topic to explore our thinking behind it while using the knowledge we gain to help us.
For example, I like to start my year off with an introduction to art history. I call this “Unit 0” as it will set the tone for what we will do and how we will do it. I created a mind map/idea web around the topic art history and broke it down. The question which emerged was, “Why do people study art?”. This is an open-ended question and the way we go about answering this will help us dive into those understanding goals we are going to highlight over the course of the year.
For Unit 0, my understanding goals that are specific to this unit (at this time) are:
- Students will develop an understanding of the formal qualities of art. (What is style and how does subject matter affect the value of art?)
- Students will appreciate the value of context when evaluating artwork. (Why is an art piece’s age an important factor in determining its value to art historians?)
It is important to note that nothing is fixed in stone. These understanding goals, and the generative topics, will be revised and refined as you get feedback from your students. Also, we need to allow our students to be a part of the process – if they have ideas that they want to add, this is actually the perfect situation for retooling your course.