When my nephew was first beginning to talk, one of the adults in the room said a curse word. The group winced. Picking up on this reaction, my nephew proceeded to repeat the word over and over and over. The fact that I couldn’t stop laughing didn’t help. My sister flashed a scowl in my direction, knowing that I was only encouraging the behavior. He didn’t understand what he was saying, but he did know it was getting the right reaction.

Working with undergraduate and graduate preservice teachers at all different stages, they often consider lessons in terms of what they want students to understand. Lesson plans in Kentucky, as in many other states, require teachers write out their learning objectives. Whenever I have reviewed or graded lesson plans, I tell preservice teachers explicitly to never start their objective with “understand.” Obviously we want our students to understand a lot of things after having been in our class. However, there are some considerable problems when using this objective: It does not indicate how the teacher knows if a student understands, nor does it indicate that students are actually doing anything.

If a student listens to a lecture and repeats a teacher’s explanation, does that mean they understand it?

When approaching curriculum, we should not only ask what students need to know, but what they need to do. Having students do something with the content provides them the space to demonstrate understanding. A key part of using inquiry is it has students apply disciplinary reasoning and skills to content. You are not doing inquiry unless students are grappling with the content through meaningful application. This challenges teachers to use pedagogies other than traditional lecture formats in order to center students in the learning process. Memorizing and repeating a definition won’t cut it! Certainly teachers do need to explain content to students. Even the best explanations, however, need to be reinforced with skills-based application.

For example, once a student asked me “what is Enlightenment?” Being a student of German, and a smart aleck, I responded by quoting Immanuel Kant: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.” Needless to say, this student was not amused. I could have provided a brilliant explanation and conclude students now understood the concept—at least they would be able to define it for me. They also would have been able to say it was influential in the coming American Revolution….since it was listed as a “cause” in their books.

But without providing them the space to apply content knowledge, I could not assess how well they truly understood. They needed to do something with these ideas and concepts. To do so, students answered the compelling question: Was the American Revolution enlightened? One part of this process included comparing excerpts from the writings of Locke and Rousseau with the Declaration of Independence’s language, thereby evaluating the extent to which Enlightenment thought shaped the Declaration. It would have been a whole lot easier to have them memorize or summarize the Kant quote – but just like my nephew repeating NSFW language, they would be repeating a response, not showing understanding.

When writing out, or mentally preparing, lesson plans, reconsider using the word “understand.” Reflect upon what it is you want students to do in order to demonstrate understanding. This is when the C3 Indicators are extremely helpful, as each reflects a demonstrable skill.

Instead of:

  • Students will understand Enlightenment concepts.

Use skills-based objectives:

  • Students will identify Enlightenment concepts; then…
    • Students will analyze how Enlightenment concepts influenced ideas in the Declaration of Independence. (C3 Framework: His.5.9-12)
    • Students will evaluate how the American Revolution was shaped by the broader historical context (e.g., the Age of Enlightenment). (C3 Framework: His.1.9-12)