John Biggs on performative versus declarative understanding

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Avalon Beach, Sydney, March 2015

Bigg’s “Teaching For Quality Learning At University” is a goldmine of student-centred learning – nuggets lying everywhere.

“This distinction between performances of understanding and verbal declarations of understanding are crucial when it comes to writing the intended learning outcomes of a course […] The difference between meeting the requirements of institutional learning and ‘real’ understanding is illustrated in Gunstone and White’s (1981) demonstrations with Physics I students. In one demonstration, two balls, one heavy and one light, were held in the air in front of the students. They were asked to predict, if the balls were released simultaneously, which one would hit the ground first and why. Some predicted that the heavy one would ‘because heavy things have a bigger force’ or ‘gravity is stronger nearer the earth’ (both are true but irrelevant). These students had ‘understood’ gravity well enough to pass HSC (A level) physics, but few understood well enough to answer a simple real-life question about gravity. They could correctly solve problems using the formula for g – which does not contain a term for the mass of the object falling – while still reacting in the belief that heavy objects fall faster. They didn’t really understand gravity in the performative sense – and why should they if their teaching and assessment didn’t require them to? These physics students hadn’t changed their commonsense conceptions of gravity, but had placed alongside them a set of statements and formulae about physical phenomena that would see them through the exams. To really understand physics or mathematics, history or accountancy is to think like a physicist, a mathematician, a historian or an accountant; and that shows in how you behave. Once you really understand a sector of knowledge, it changes that part of the world; you don’t behave towards that domain in the same way again. Gunstone and White’s physics students were good at verbally declaring their knowledge, for example explaining what gravity is about, or what the three laws of motion are. But is this why we are teaching these topics? Is it for acquaintance, so that students know something about the topic and can answer the sorts of stock questions that typify examination papers? In that case, a verbal understanding will suffice. Or is it to change the way (sooner or later) students can understand and control reality? If that is the case, then a performative level of understanding is implicated.”

Biggs, John (2011-09-01). Teaching For Quality Learning At University (Society for Research Into Higher Education) (p. 86). McGraw Hill International. Kindle Edition.

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