This post was originally published on September 8, 2014. Its message is still meaningful today, especially as we are challenging kids to take on increasingly complex texts.
I would like to thank Deborah Harkness, Jennifer Ikeda, Grant Wiggins, and Jay McTighe for making this post possible. Without Harkness’ story, Ikeda’s brilliant narration of that story, and Wiggins’ and McTighe’s research on the facets of understanding, this post would not be possible. If I have misconstrued or misunderstood any of their work, I apologize. Please leave a comment that corrects my understanding.
Apparently, we English-speaking human beings use the word “understanding” and “understand” with wild abandon, applying the word in different inconspicuous ways, in different and the same contexts. That’s probably fine for most conversations, but when we are assessing others for understanding of a concept or skill, we really should be talking about the same type of understanding. Fortunately for us, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe have done the academic “heavy lifting” for us, and have identified six facets of understanding by which we can assess our students. Now, we need to integrate that vocabulary into our assessment practices, both in terms of assessment development and results analysis.
We can apply these six facets of understanding to the novels recently published by Deborah Harkness and brilliantly narrated by Jennifer Ikeda. The trilogy is called the The All Souls Trilogy ( a brilliant play on words that I will let you figure out for yourself) details the development of Diana Bishop, a complex woman who grows to understand herself and her purpose in the world. The three novels that make up that trilogy are A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night, and The Book of Life. When she reaches the level of self-knowledge, Diana is a very powerful being who has released the fear of the unknown and embraced the capriciousness of fate and the future. What fun would it be to combine the study of a Bildungsroman trilogy such as this one with the six facets of understanding! I believe it would be an incredible learning journey for teacher and students.
When we truly understand, we can explain – via generalizations or principles, providing justified and systematic accounts of phenomena, facts, and data; make insightful connections and provide illuminating examples or illustrations (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).
Diana is described early on as a precocious child with a photographic memory that helps her to “do” school with aplomb. She graduates high school early. After figuring out what she wants as a major (History), she then graduates college in record time. After pursuing her Ph.D. at New College, Oxford, she accepts a position at Yale, publishes a couple of books, and is granted tenure at a very young age. Her specialty is the history of alchemy, a practice and philosophy that is the precursor to chemistry. She accomplishes all of this while denying an important part of herself – that she is a witch. After failing to demonstrate any abilities as a witch (she can’t even cast a spell to light a candle), Diana buries that part of herself and moves on to trying to be as human as she can be.
While on sabbatical from Yale, Diana returns to Oxford to study at the Bodleian Library. She is preparing a paper she will deliver at a conference when she requests a book that will change her life forever – Ashmole 782. She is finding it difficult to put the paper together; with all of her “knowledge,” she still seems unable to have that “a ha moment” where things come together in a coherent way. She is nervous beyond nervous about her task and thinks that she will not be ready to present by the time of the conference. I submit that until this point, Diana worked hard to try to explain alchemy “by the books.” Like all book worms, she can lose herself in the research, trying to make connections among the various tomes in which we look for answers. Diana can cite resources for days on end and principles derived from those resources, but the big picture still alludes her – and she knows it. She tries to derive understanding while denying that alchemy and magic have any connection. Her cognitive dissonance demonstrates her stubbornness and is quite frustrating, actually. It’s my opinion, too, that she doesn’t even understand why she chose alchemy as her specialty. Her aunts, especially Sarah, consistently chide her for refusing to see the connections between the two. One could say that after years of study, Diana still has a cursory or surface understanding of alchemy, a “book smart” understanding. It’s not understanding in terms that Wiggins and McTighe would classify as true understanding. Rather, she is relying on recall and her ability to put pieces together to sound good to those not as familiar with the subject. I digress, but perhaps one of the reasons she chose such a topic was because she did not want to delve too deeply into a topic reachable by others and have to use those parts of herself she was trying to bury to truly understand it.
Diana’s understanding will change, just as mine did when faced with the overwhelming task of synthesizing my knowledge to produce understanding. That change starts with the moment she touches Ashmole 782, and her self-imposed exile from the big ideas of alchemy…and life ends.
When we truly understand, we can interpret – tell meaningful stories; offer apt translations; provide a revealing historical or personal dimension to ideas and events; make the object of understanding personal or accessible through images, anecdotes, analogies, and models (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).
The way that Diana approached understanding was how I muddled through high school and college, too, until I had to write a paper on Hegelian philosophy and its impact on politics. I presented it to a professor whose Ph.D. focused on the philosopher. It was the first time I received an F on a paper in my entire academic career. Dr. Riley told me, “Heather, you simply don’t get him and his influence. Rewrite the paper and dig deep this time.” Once I accepted that I needed to develop a personal and accessible understanding of the topic, the paper started to take a much different shape. My fear of failure had realized itself; Dr. Riley’s prediction that I could fail and not die was proven true. I had to struggle with the fact that I was not a “natural” intellectual, just a book smart person who wanted to be. I learned that to be intellectually cognizant of my subject, I had to marry prior knowledge and experience with new information, construct new theories about it, and defend those ideas coherently. I could not simply restate what I found in a book. That was terrifying.
I started over, put aside the paper I had written, and created something completely different. Dr. Riley’s reaction: “Now, that’s the Heather I know is in there somewhere.” It still does not come easily to me and I struggle with creating such demonstrations of understanding, but now I realize that it’s not supposed to be easy. Anyone who purports to be an intellectual and says that it is easy or comes naturally to produce understanding of a subject that is accessible to others is lying. We as teachers need to specifically instruct our students to work hard producing understandings. We need to model that complex process, too, and be willing to admit failure at times so that students don’t think it should be easy.
When we truly understand, we can apply – effectively use and adapt what we know in diverse and real contexts[.] We can “do” the subject (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).
It is not until Diana uses her witchy gift of time travel to visit the 16th century, and works with Mary Sidney in her alchemy lab that she truly starts to understand the practice and philosophy. Diana says to her husband Matthew that it is good to be a student again, to have more questions than answers. With each experiment she and Mary work on, she learns how to “do” alchemy in ways that books would never have taught her. She enters into a cognitive apprenticeship with her friend and mentor, learning by doing and constructing her own understanding.
Diana revels in the questions of alchemy while also learning more about her powers as a witch. She has accepted the fact that her parents had spellbound her as a young child before they traveled to Africa where they died. Her mother Rebecca had a premonition that she and her husband Stephen would die there. They needed to protect their young witch from being discovered as a very powerful being. Both of her parents could see what kind of witch she was going to become. They would not be alive to protect her from those who would want to examine – or destroy – her. They did not see any other way.
The bindings her parents had magically wrapped her in had begun to unravel prior to her visit to the 16th century. (To find out why and how that happened, read the books.) Her powers were unpredictable and oftentimes dangerous to herself and others. Throughout the novels, she repeatedly talks about not understanding her magic. It is through reflection, experience, and the relationship with one other witch like her that she learns how to “do” her magic, which is quite different from the craft her aunts practice. She can’t rely on books to understand how to control and use her powers, nor can she rely on other witches like her to provide answers, only guidance. She has to figure it out through application of them, just as she comes to an understanding of alchemy by applying her working knowledge to real experiences. Why? Well, Diana isn’t just any witch. She’s a weaver, a type of witch who can create spells, not just cast them. Weavers cannot rely on the work of others. Her father, a weaver and time-walker also, even advises her to just let spells and techniques go “in one ear and out the other” when they meet in the 16th century. She would have to figure out her own spells. She would not be able to cast spells others had conjured, much like the alchemists had to break previously unbroken ground to make any progress toward understanding nature and revealing its secrets.
As if her life had not been hard enough.
When we truly understand, we have perspective – see and hear points of view through critical eyes and ears; see the big picture (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).
Toward the end of the story, Diana and the other characters see the big picture, namely, their roles in the grand scheme of things and how all of the pieces of their individual histories fit. They are able to adopt another’s point of view if needed by synthesizing the knowledge they have of a situation and that person’s psychology in sophisticated ways. Knowledge, experience, inference, and the “educated guess” converge often.
Diana realizes that to understand her chosen specialty and her magic, she has to approach life much differently than she had in the past, let go of the crutches upon which she leaned, and acknowledge her strengths and weaknesses. Probably the most important thing is this: Diana realizes that she is not independent, but interdependent, in many good ways. Being able to see something from another’s perspective occurs with the realization that we are interdependent. We can’t survive without the elusive “other.” We must understand one another. That doesn’t mean we have to accept the other’s point of view as our own; just that we have to be able to see it.
In today’s classrooms, the big ideas and essential questions of a subject area are much more important than they used to be. Contained within them both are the collected and carefully chosen perspectives harvested from years of research, wondering, and wandering through the content of the subject area by respected minds in the subject area community. Both of these important components of a curriculum are intended to help students gain perspective about what they are learning; they are beacons in the murky waters of content. They are part of the circle of academic life. Think about that one and let me know what you think. Is my point of view about big ideas and essential questions correct or can you suggest alternative ways to understand them?
When we truly understand, we can empathize – find value in what others might find odd, alien, or implausible; perceive sensitively on the basis of prior direct experience (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).
“You have a lot to learn about vampires.” Diana hears this often from her in-laws. Basically, they mean that she hasn’t a clue about what it means to be a vampire, the rules of the “pack,” and the need to keep secrets. As her emotional connection to her family grows, as she learns more about herself, and as she lets go of her preconceived notions, she learns and understands them much better.
It turns out that they have a lot to learn about her, too, and she’s the only one available to teach them about who she is and why she is special. We readers see all of the characters become more empathetic as they become a family in the truest sense of the word. They learn to appreciate the others around them, stop segregating themselves from creatures unlike them, and even allow humans within their circle. They stop thinking that they know best, or that their sieur knows better than anyone. In an effort to survive, vampires had always put their faith in their leader, their alpha. Now, they realize that in order to survive, they need to put faith in others.
[pullquote]”Impossible n’est pas français.” – Ysabeau de Clermont[/pullquote]Toward the end of the book, it seems that the characters think nothing implausible, whereas before most decisions or actions are unacceptable, unimaginable, or some other word that starts with “un,” “im,” or “in.” One of the humans, Diana’s best friend Chris, sums it up best when he says something like, “I’m a scientist. I’ve been trained to suspend disbelief and take in the facts.” In relationships, that is an important first step toward empathy. Put your own feelings aside and try to find value in the feelings and positions of other beings. Empathy has no room for knee-jerk reactions, nor a reliance on tradition or rigid rules of engagement.
When we truly understand, we have self-knowledge – show metacognitive awareness; perceive the personal style, prejudices, projections, and habits of mind that both shape and impede our own understanding; are aware of what we do not understand; reflect on the meaning of learning and experience (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).
Self-knowledge is a quintessential part of the plot of this book. Without all of the characters learning more about themselves – how their history plays a part in their present and future, what habits help and hinder them, what they know and do not know – none of the growth they experienced would have taken place. In Diana’s case, letting go of her fears, and embracing her power and weaknesses left her as a fully-realized human being “with a difference,” as her friend Chris decreed about all of the creatures that were in the book – witches, vampires, and daemons.
In my opinion, all teachers should strive to help their students acquire the self-knowledge as described above. Hopefully, it won’t be as hard for most students to realize as it was for Diana Bishop. 🙂
Harkness, D. E. (2011). A discovery of witches. New York, NY: Viking.
Harkness, D. E. (2012). Shadow of night. New York, NY: Viking.
Harkness, D. E. (2014). The book of life. New York, NY: Viking.
Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.