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Teaching for Understanding : Article 1

Teaching for Understanding

An Introduction


Thai teachers

Shifting the Educational Paradigm  to Student Centered Teaching and Learning


Greg Cairnduff

By Greg Cairnduff, 

Director The Australian International School of Bangkok 

January  2012  





This article is a  contribution to the  discussion about moving Thai education  from rote learning as the pedagogical norm, towards a pedagogy that is student-centered  and one that  will enhance the capacities of Thai students going into  the 21st Century workforce.

This is the first of a series of three articles on the basics of the methodology known as Teaching for Understanding.

Educational Change is Not Easy to Achieve

The challenge of educational change is well documented  and demonstrated in the practical attempts at reform by education systems around the world. Evidence of reform efforts reveals one inescapable factor: large scale educational change is never easy, nor is it quick to achieve.

The Finnish education system is an outstanding example of a high performing, high quality system. But it should be noted that it took Finnish educators  least 15 years to develop their at system to its current level.

Systemic context is relevant to the pace of successful reform. For example, Finland’s context is one of a relatively small country of under 6 million people compared to Thailand’s population of 62 million. On this count alone, the contexts of the two systems are very different.

Educational Change in Thailand

Thailand has  a very large education system. To move from an old paradigm of education [20th Century model] to a new paradigm [21st Century model] in a system of over 35 000 schools is like turning a large ship around – it takes time and sea space; it can be slow, cumbersome, and hard to achieve in the short term.

Despite these contextual challenges, the shift to student-centered learning is the  shift that is essential for  students’ success in the 21st Century.  In the end it is teachers in the classrooms of Thai schools who have to actually bring about this big change.

What are some of the needs of 21st Century Education?

Students must be prepared differently to enter the Information Age [C21st] workforce than in the Industrial era. The main difference is  preparation related to knowledge work, the kind of work that more and more people will do in the 21st century.

If Thailand is to have workers with the necessary skills for these times, the nation must have an education system that focuses heavily on the skills required for this  century, particularly communication and computer skills

What Knowledge and Skills are required for the 21st Century?

Building knowledge and developing sets of skills have traditionally been considered the mainstays of education.

In the rapidly changing world, the acquisition of the standard skills of reading, writing and numeracy are no longer sufficient. Internationally, education systems are  looking at ways to prepare students for  jobs that involve complex thinking and communication skills. These are the knowledge work jobs of today and tomorrow that require complex skills, expertise and creativity.

What seems certain is that there are two sets of skills that are at the top of job requirements for 21st century work: The ability to quickly acquire and apply new knowledge and  know how to apply certain commonly required skills to all aspects of the workplace; such as  problem solving, communication, teamwork, technology and innovation.

Four powerful elements  are converging and leading towards new ways of learning for life in the 21st century.

These  are generally recognised as:

  • Knowledge work
  • Thinking tools
  • Digital lifestyles
  • Learning research.

The diagram  provides an  indication of how these four elements fit together.

Education Transitions

Knowledge Work

The Thai Education system faces increasing pressure to produce knowledge workers.

Internationally, corporations are making investments in global programs to attract graduates to the high technology fields and to train them in these fields. The Thai education system has to ensure that students are not at a disadvantage when these corporations are in the Thai or international market for knowledge workers. For example, Thai graduates have to compete with well educated graduates from India and China.

In the book, The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China and What it Means for all of US, the author, Meredith writes “suddenly Americans must compete with much of the rest of the world for their jobs with much of the rest of the world “ [1] This comment emphasises the same for Thailand – Thai workers are competing with Indian and Chinese workers on the international job market.

Thinking Tools

The mental tasks of knowledge work involve accessing, managing, creating, and communicating information. These tasks are becoming easier and more efficient as digital tools for assisting with the tasks become increasingly sophisticated. Therefore, teaching in and learning in Thai schools has to move towards teaching students methods to help them organise their thinking, as well they need to use the digital tools available to them.

Digital Lifestyles

The terms “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” describe the divide that often exists between the students who are digital natives and their teachers, who are mostly digital immigrants. These digital natives [the students] and the digital immigrants [the teachers], must be able to work together. It is likely that it is the teachers who have to change the most.

Traditional Teaching

Studies of traditional teaching practices reveal numerous and persistent pitfalls. Too frequently students can’t remember what they have learnt or don’t understand the material well enough to apply it in different situations.  Regular classroom activities are often too routine to promote understanding.

The spelling drills, true-and-false quizzes, arithmetic exercises and conventional essay questions so common in the teacher-led classroom, promote the learning of knowledge, but limit the versatility of the skills.  The development of knowledge and routine skills are important, but what students learn is superficial and often remains inert, students are unable to apply their knowledge, or recognize opportunities to do so.

Educators must provide alternate applications for the theory and real-world examples. Learning experiences where students can apply their new knowledge and understanding outside the academic context, and

Teaching for Understanding

The approaches to developing understanding in students as used in many parts of the world  are  often based on the work of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Faculty members at the Harvard Graduate School of Education collaborated with many experienced teachers and researchers to develop, test, and refine this approach for effective teaching.

It is strongly recommended that readers refer to the web site at:

Teaching for Understanding is based on the premise that students who understand information are more flexible with their knowledge.

What is Understanding?

The term understanding denotes a variety of mental processes, states and structures.

  • Understanding refers to the ability appreciate the nature, significance, or explanation of a concept and apply these concepts appropriately (Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 2002).
  • Understanding implies to the ability to make connections between facts [knowledge] and relating newly acquired information, to that which is already known and integrating knowledge into a cohesive whole so that ideas and concepts are understood.

The Need to Develop Understanding in the Teaching and Learning Process

Educators and students find themselves in the middle of an information explosion and a rapidly changing world.  The increased body of information proves problematic for teaching and learning. It is no longer feasible for students to memorize all the facts and figures that come at them on a daily basis.  Instead, teachers need to work with students to develop their ability to understand concepts and principles that will permit them to operate in the rapidly evolving world.

Researchers and educational reformers have worked collaboratively to develop a definition of understanding and identify approaches to teaching that develop skills and improve student understanding.

Developing Understanding  

Students’ ability to understand the world needs to be developed so they are able to adapt to new situations and apply their understanding to enable them to solve  problems.

The application of skills and knowledge beyond the classroom requires more than just the ability to do the task. It requires understanding of concepts and big ideas.

In Thailand [and not only Thailand] most of the current teaching practice has students acquiring knowledge and routine skills without necessarily any real understanding of the concepts and reasons which underpin the acquired knowledge. Often students know how to do something, but they have no depth of understanding of the processes and outcomes of what they are doing.

For example, students may know how a car can be driven so that it moves, but do they understand the chemistry and physics in causing this to happen?

In looking at an issue for example, the environment, it is necessary to have an understanding of the internal combustion engine in order to make judgments about the impact of the car on the environment.

Implications for Thai teachers

The challenge for Thai teachers is to move their practice from mainly teaching and testing the acquisition of knowledge to teaching students to think, ask questions, and develop deep understanding of the knowledge they acquire and rather than testing knowledge,  assessment ought to part of the learning process.

Articles presented in earlier by Ellen Cornish and Dr Don Jordan [December, and September October 2011] provide practical examples of how teachers can plan for this type of teaching.  

Article 2 in this series on Teaching for Understanding in February, will suggest ways teachers can enhance the development of deep understanding.

[1] Meredith, R. The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China and What it Means for all of US New York, Norton, p190

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