Topics that Generate Understanding

In his 1992 book Smart Schools: From training memories to Educating Minds, David Perkins suggests reorganizing the curriculum around “generative topics” that provoke what he calls “understanding performances” which not only demonstrate a student’s understanding but also advance it by encompassing new situations. With his Harvard University colleagues Howard Gardner and Vito Perrone, he devised several standards for such topics: they should be central to a subject matter or curriculum; they should be accessible and inviting to teachers and students, not “sparse or arcane” and they should be rich, encouraging extrapolation and connection making. The three researchers came up with the following “good bets” as examples.

Natural Sciences
Evolution focusing on the mechanism of natural selection in biology and on its wide applicability to other settings like pop music, fashion, the evolution of ideas. The origin and fate of the universe focusing qualitatively on cosmic questions as in Stephen Hawkings a brief history of time the periodic table focusing on the dismaying number of elements identified by early investigators and the challenge of making order out of chaos. The question what is real in science, pointing up how scientists are forever inventing entities(quarks, atoms, black holes) that we can never straightforwardly see but as evidence accumulates, come to think of as real.

Social Studies
Nationalism and internationalism focusing on the causal role of nationalistic sentiment often cultivation by leaders for their own purposes as in Hitler’s Germany, in world h history and in the prevailing foreign policy attitudes in America today. Revolution and evolution asking whether cataclysmic revolutions are necessary or evolutionary mechanisms will serve. Origins of government asking where, when and why different forms of government have emerged. The question what is real in history, pointing up how events can look very different to different participants and interpretations

Zero, focusing on the problems of practical arithmetic that this great invention resolved. Proof, focusing on different ways of establishing something as true and their advantages and disadvantages. Probability and prediction, highlighting the ubiquitous need for simple probabilistic reasoning in every dal life the question what is real in mathematics, emphasizing that mathematics is an invention and that many mathematical things initially were not considered real,(for instance, negative numbers, zero, and even the number one).

Allegory and fable, juxtaposing classic and modern examples and asking whether the form has changed or remains essentially the same. Biography and autobiography contrasting how these forms reveal and conceal the true person form and the liberation from form examining what authors have apparently gained from sometimes embracing and sometimes rejecting certain forms(the dramatic unities, the sonnet) the question what is real in literature exploring the many senses of realism and how we can learn about real life from fiction.

From David Perkins, Smart Schools: From Training Memories to Educating Minds (New York; Free Press, 1992)