This article first appeared in the appeared in the Fall, 1993 issue of American Educator, the journal of The American Federation of Teachers. We reprint it here with permission of AFT and of Professor Perkins, co-director of Project Zero at the Harvard University.


In a small town near Boston, a teacher of mathematics asks his students to design the floor plan of a community center, including dance areas, a place for a band, and other elements. Why? Because the floor plan involves several geometric shapes and prescribed floor area. The students must use what they have studied about area to make a suitable plan.

In a city not far away, a teacher asks students to identify a time in their lives when they had been treated unjustly and when they had treated someone else unjustly. Why? Because the students will soon start reading works of literature, including To Kill a Mockingbird, that deals with issues of justice and who determines it. Making connections with students’ own lives is to be a theme throughout. In a classroom in the Midwest, a student, using his own drawings, explains to a small group of peers how a certain predatory beetle mimics ants in order to invade their nests and eat their eggs. Why? Each student has an individual teaching responsibility for the group. Learning to teach one another develops secure comprehension of their topics (Brown et al., in press). In an elementary school in Arizona, students studying ancient Egypt produce a National Enquirer–style, four-page tabloid call King Tut’s Chronicle. Headlines tease “Cleo in Trouble Once Again?” Why? The format motivates the students and leads them to synthesize and represent what they are learning (Fiske, 1991, pp. 175-8).

Quirky, perhaps, by the measure of traditional educational practice, such episodes are not common in American classrooms. Neither are they rare. The first two examples happen to reflect the work of teachers collaborating with my colleagues and me in studies of teaching for understanding. The second two are drawn from an increasingly rich and varied literature. Anyone alert to current trends in teaching practice will not be surprised. These cases illustrate a growing effort to engage students more deeply and thoughtfully in subject-matter learning. Connections are sought between students’ lives and the subject matter, between principles and practice, between the past and the present. Students are asked to think through concepts and situations, rather than memorize and give back on the quiz.

These days it seems old-fashioned to speak of bringing an apple to the teacher. But each of these teachers deserves an apple. They are stepping well beyond what most school boards, principals, and parents normally require of teachers. They are teaching for understanding. They want more from their students than remembering the formula for the area of a trapezoid, or three key kinds of camouflage, or the date of King Tut’s reign, or the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. They want students to understand what they are learning, not just to know about it.

Wouldn’t it be nice to offer the same apple to all teachers in all schools?…an apple for educations altogether. However, teaching for understanding is not such an easy enterprise in many educational settings. Nor is it always welcome. Teaching for understanding?…the phrase has a nice sensible ring to it: Nice…but is it necessary?

Yes. It is absolutely necessary to achieve the most basic goal of education: preparing students for further learning and more effective functioning in their lives. In the paragraphs and pages to come, I argue that teaching for understanding amounts to a central element of any reasonable program of education. Moreover, once we pool insights from the worlds of research and from educational practice, we understand enough about both the nature of understanding and how people learn for understanding to support a concerted and committed effort to teach for understanding.


Knowledge and skill have traditionally been the mainstays of American education. We want students to be knowledgeable about history, science, geography, and so on. We want students to be skillful in the routines of arithmetic, the craft of writing, the use of foreign languages. Achieving this is not easy, but we work hard at it.

So with knowledge and skill deserving plenty of concern and getting plenty of attention, why pursue understanding? While there are several reasons, one stands out: Knowledge and skill in themselves do not guarantee understanding. People can acquire knowledge and routine skills without understanding their basis or when to use them. And, by and large, knowledge and skills that are not understood do students little good! What use can students make of the history or mathematics they have learned unless they have understood it?

In the long term, education must aim for active use of knowledge and skill (Perkins, 1992). Students garner knowledge and skill in schools so that they can put them to work–in professional roles–scientist, engineer, designer, doctor, businessperson, writer, artist, musician–and in lay roles–citizen, voter, parent–that require appreciation, understanding, and judgment. Yet rote knowledge generally defies active use, and routine skills often serve poorly because students do not understand when to use them. In short, we must teach for understanding in order to realize the long-term payoffs of education.

But maybe there is nothing that needs to be done. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Perhaps students understand quite well the knowledge and skills they are acquiring.

Unfortunately, research says otherwise. For instance, studies of students’ understanding of science and mathematics reveal numerous and persistent shortfalls. Misconceptions in science range from youngsters’ confusion about whether the Earth is flat or in just what way it is round, to college students’ misconceptions about Newton’s laws (e.g., Clemet, 1982, 1983; McCloskey, 1983; Nussbaum, 1985). Misunderstandings in mathematics include divers “malrules,” where students overgeneralize rules for one operation and carry them over inappropriately to another; difficulties in the use of ratios and proportions; confusion about what algebraic equations really mean, and more (e.g., Behr, Lesh, Post, and Silver, 1983; Clement, Lochhead and Monk, 1981; Lochhead and Mestre, 1988; Resnick, 1987, 1992).

Although the humanistic subject matters might appear on the surface less subject to misunderstanding than the technically challenging science and mathematics, again research reveals that this is not true. For instance, studies of students’ reading abilities show that, while they can read the words, they have difficulty interpreting and making inferences from what they have read. Studies of writing show that most students experience little success with formulating cogent viewpoints well-supported by arguments (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 1981). Indeed, students tend to write essays in a mode Bereiter and Scardamalia (1985) call “knowledge telling,” simply writing out paragraph by paragraph what they know about a topic rather than finding and expressing a viewpoint.

Examinations of students’ understanding of history reveal that they suffer from problems such as “presentism” and “localism” (Carretero, Pozo, and Asensio, 1989; Shelmit, 1980). For instance, students pondering Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima often are severely critical because of more recent history. Suffering from “presentism,” they have difficulty projecting themselves into the era and pondering the issue in terms of what Truman knew at the time. Yet such shifts of perspective are essential for understanding history–and indeed for understanding other nations, cultures, and ethnic groups today. Moreover, Gardner (1991) argues that students’ understanding of the humanistic subject matters is plagued by a number of stereotypes–for instance those concerning racial, sexual, and ethnic identity–that amount to misunderstandings of the human condition in it variety.

So understanding is “broke” far more often that we can reasonably tolerate. Moreover, we can do something about it. The time is ripe. Cognitive science, educational psychology, and practical experience with teachers and students put us in a position to teach for understanding–and to teach teachers to teach for understanding (Gardner, 1991; Perkins, 1986, 1992). As the following sections argue, today, more than ever before, teaching for understanding is an approachable agenda for education.