Interpretation of 'understanding' : comparing classroom practice and the National Curriculum for English
The research aims to explore the extent to which there are differences between
explicit uses of the term `understanding' in current government policies and a group
of teachers' interpretations of the term in their English and Literacy teaching.
A review of the literature on the term `understanding' in Chapter One and a survey of
the use of the term in current government curriculum documents for English in
Chapter Two argue that cognitive understanding empowers a learner. A learner gains
a knowledge of the webs of inter relationship between the content and structure of a
subject. English teaching inter-twines the cognitive and affective to bring the
subjective to the forefront of understanding. In the National Curriculum an official,
instruction-like and regulatory discourse which blends the written with visual features
(for example, bullet points) positions understanding as an overt objective and
outcome. This creates a connection between skill and understanding and implies a
surface understanding only.
Using a qualitative approach, the fieldwork shows that teachers operate implicit
interpretations of cognitive and affective understanding to take pupils beyond what
they know already. The teachers' instruction-like plans, which use lists and bullet
points, ensure conformity to the planned curriculum, and are part of the selfsurveillance
teachers carry out to make sure they follow it. A `one visit' and `always
moving on' curriculum, which has little space for reflection, can prevent teachers
from `putting their mark' on it. This leads to children acquiring a surface as opposed
to a deep understanding.
Through the study of the implicit interpretation of understanding in part of one lesson,
it is suggested that pupils are active in the cognitive and affective unpicking of, and
informed speculation about, a text. As they move between word, sentence and text
level in a `whole to part to whole' manner, they make a close reading that identifies
features of the text being studied and the webs of inter-relationship within the text andin other texts. In this way, the implicit interpretation of understanding in text
annotation involves an exploration of how and why texts work. This principled way of
working takes a learner towards deep understanding. It appears that government
documents are moving in the direction of understanding as a set of discrete skills
while the teachers in this study move in a different direction towards a deeper
interpretation of the term.