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Growing Understanding – An Important Part of Transforming Learning

Updated: Jan 10, 2019

By Beate Planche |Originally published in The Learning Exchange Blog April 18, 2018

As the Ontario Ministry of Education report on Phase One – 21st Century Competencies (Winter, 2016 Edition) reinforced, cognitive competencies such as critical thinking, analysis and problem solving are important but no longer touted as the only prominent indicators for success (p. 10).  Interpersonal and intrapersonal growth are now being recognized as important as growth in the cognitive domain and the fundamental domain of being able to communicate well. Increasingly in our complex world, we know it is important for adults to have strong people skills as well as reliable working skills.   An important question in teaching this generation of students is how can we nurture and capture the impact of emerging softer skills in student learning? As well, in what ways can we integrate social, emotional and academic learning authentically so that learning can be assessed in holistic ways as well as within a particular discipline?

Building success in school on social, emotional and academic learning is not a new concept.  Research on the social nature of learning was well received in the mid-1990’s through the work of Daniel Goleman and his concept of emotional intelligence (1995) and the work of Maurice Elias and colleagues (1997) and their work through the Collaboration for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL). This important research reinforced the social nature of learning (Elias et al, 1997) and that much learning is relational and impacted by relationships (Zins et al, 2004).  A great deal is now known about the impact of a safe, supportive learning environment on student success.

As well, present efforts to integrate an inquiry stance in curricular implementation support what research has already illuminated – that self-motivated learning is possible in contexts that provide for choice and control (McCombs, 2004).  As McCombs wrote:

“When students have choices and are allowed to control major aspects of their learning (such as what topics to pursue, how and when to study, and the outcomes they want to achieve) they are more likely to achieve self-regulation of thinking and learning processes.” (2004, p. 25)

This is a vital understanding for us as educators as the outcome of student alienation is linked to the failure to provide support to address the motivational needs of competence, autonomy and relatedness or connection.  These needs in turn impact commitment, effort and quality of student work (McCombs, 2004, p. 26).

Presently, we are also making explicit links between developing social and emotional competencies and the concept of well-being.  Well-being is now a clearly defined goal of public education in Ontario (Achieving Excellence: A Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario, 2014).   How we approach this goal is important. Despite good intentions, scattered implementation results if concepts about SEL or as used in some settings, SEAL (Social, Emotional and Academic Learning) are merely seen as “programs to deliver.”  At the core of SEAL, the work includes helping individual learners grow their own understanding as well as growing understanding for learning together with others.

These two dimensions of “growing understanding” need to be employed hand in hand and underpin how we can better engage all learners.  We need to become explicit in engaging young people in making connections to both the cognitive demands within learning activities as well as the relational aspects which enrich the learning. We need to engage learners in transformative learning that builds a sense of connection and engages our “heads, hearts and hands” (Singleton, 2015).  Engaging “heads, hearts and hands” of students also involves addressing issues of diversity, inclusion and equity as well as the impact of culture and context on student learning.

I don’t mean to diminish wonderful programs and projects available to schools which focus on specific skill building such as Tribes training or the use of Restorative approaches.  My intention is rather to say that just as inquiry is as much of a philosophical stance to learning as it is a pedagogical choice, “growing understanding” is an approach to building relationships as much as an element of effective teaching and learning.  

What does “growing understanding” really mean? We have been comfortable with several different definitions of understanding for many years. For example, we are comfortable using the word in the following ways – “We have a thorough understanding of a concept” or “We have an understanding as to how to divide our workload” or “We have a relationship based on treating each other with kindness and understanding.”  Our grasp of understanding as a term includes our acquisition of knowledge and the building of intellectual and emotional capacity. We also appreciate, perceive and grasp deeper meanings through developed understanding and I would add, the special ingredient of empathy.  Understanding is at the core of cognition and meta-cognition as we think about our own thinking and our own knowing.  Metacognition influences how we plan, monitor and evaluate our own progress and influences the development of self-regulation.  

What affects a student’s sense of self and sense of understanding is the involvement of emotion – linked to confidence, motivation, curiosity, relationships, safety and trust.  Emotion is evoked every time students join other students at a table or in a task. Students may be anxious, encouraged, humoured or wary of the expectations inherent in working together.  Staff experiences collaborating together mirrors student experience. There are conscious and unconscious needs at work in any group situation for student and staff learners. As Daniel Goleman’s work (1995) highlights, we all want to belong, to have a sense of control and to be engaged in teamwork that develops shared understanding.  Thus, we need to develop understanding for each other as we learn together while growing understanding of the work itself.   

For those of you who are fans of Twitter, Thom Markham wrote a very thought-provoking post for Mindshift (Nov. 16, 2016), where he suggests that empathy holds the key for transforming 21stCentury learning.  He writes:

“What if we discovered one unifying factor that brought all of this confusion under one roof and gave us a coherent sense of how to stimulate the intellect, teach children to engage in collaborative problem solving and creative challenge, and foster social-emotional balance and stability. One factor, if we got right, would change the equation for learning in the same way that confirming the existence of a fundamental particle informs a grand theory of the universe?  That factor exists: It’s called empathy.”

Markham suggests that empathy provides “…the emotional sustenance for outstanding human performance.”  It includes “…the feeling of being able to understand and share another’s experience and emotions.” He goes on to write about seven concepts which connect the importance of empathy to what I will call “growing understanding for each other” and “the work or learning we do together.”  Markham’s concepts are summarized as follows:

Empathy underlies collaboration- As today’s students will work together within workplaces and across cultures.Empathy is healthy – As well-being, health, relationships and personal strengths are impacted by our ability to be empathetic. Empathy promotes whole-child learning – As empathy activates the heart as well as its 40,000 neurons that travel from the heart to the brain.  Gratitude and appreciation, cousins of empathy, show positive effects on brain function.Empathy ‘opens’ us up – As being “in flow” states helps us to function at peak levels.Empathy powers up inquiry – Developing cultures of care makes open-ended questions safe and encourages caring about learning.Empathy triggers creativity – As it is often the first step used in design processes in crafting new software –‘sinking into the mind of another’ so to speak.Empathy unites – A key emotion critical for people to live in harmony and co-operation.

As the 2012 OECD Practitioner Guide: The Nature of Learning contends: 

“Emotions are the primary gatekeepers to learning.  Emotions and cognition operate together and guide our learning. Recognizing the role that emotions play in learning can help us to ‘grow student understanding’understanding of the demands of the curriculum while helping students grow understanding for each other as well as the role support plays in the learning process itself.   As adult learners, we are co-learners in the process and do this through facilitated classroom discourse and activity, through collaborative professional learning and through leadership teamwork.  Specific SEL or SEAL programs can certainly support the quest to grow understanding but I believe it needs to begin with adults modelling how we grow understanding of our own work while being empathetic and caring about each other as professionals and colleagues at the same time.   Our students need to see us as learners as much as teachers and leaders. We need to be explicit in modelling how we come to understand concepts and to co-construct meaning with each other and with our students. The value of collaborative inquiry in Ontario as a learning vehicle brings this point home. Deeper forms of co-learning involve our emotions, our reflections, our experiences and shine a light on the value of the power of growing understanding.” (Sharratt & Planche, 2016)

Jack Mezirow would call our challenge a quest for transformative learning – where we consider a frame of learning which encompasses cognitive, meta-cognitive and emotional components (1997, p. 5).  In transformative learning, we seek to become aware and reflective of our own assumptions as well as that of others. Discourse is necessary to validate what and how one understands or arrives at best judgments. Becoming critically reflective is fundamental to effective collaborative problem posing and solving (p. 9). Learning contracts, group projects, role play, case studies and simulations are learning designs that are associated with education that is considered transformative (p.10). Learning is a social process and discourse becomes central to our ability to make meaning of our work and learning (p 10).

I am hopeful about our efforts to transform education as there are many who see the value in drilling learning down to deeper concepts while embracing new ways of learning and collaborating with our students as we work to grow understanding – for our learning and for each other as valuable co-learners.   Our communities and our schools will benefit from the development of empathetic and collaborative problem solvers who are also able to be autonomous, creative and insightful thinkers.

Dr. Beate Planche is a former teacher, principal, superintendent of schools and superintendent of Curriculum and Instructional Services with the York Region District School Board.  Presently, she is a sessional instructor with Western University – Graduate Education and working with schools as an educational consultant and instructional coach. Contact Beate @bmplanche on Twitter and


Elias, M. J., Zins, J.E., Weissberg, R. P., Frey, K. S., Greenberg, M. T., Haynes, N. M., Kessler, R., Schwab-Stone, M. E., & Shriver, T. P. (1997). Promoting social and emotional learning: Guidelines for educators. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Dumont, H., Istance, D. & Benavides, F. (Editors) (2012). The Nature of Learning: Using research to inspire practice. Practitioner guide from the innovative learning environments project. OECD: Centre for Educational Research and Innovation. Retrieved from The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice

Fullan, M. (2013). Great to excellent: Launching the next stage of Ontario’s educational agenda. Toronto, ON: Pearson.Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence. New York, N.Y: Bantam Books JSD – The Learning Forward Journal. (Feb. 2016) Standards for Professional Learning. 37(1).

KQED-Mindshift (2016, November 16). Thom Markham: Why empathy holds the key to transforming 21stcentury Learning [Twitter moment]. Retrieved from Mindshift (Nov. 16, 2016

McCombs, B. L. (2004). The learner-centered psychological principles: A framework for balancing academic achievement and social-emotional learning outcomes. (Chapter 2) In Building academic success on social and emotional learning: what does the research say? Editors: J. E. Zins; R.P. Weissberg; M. C. Wang & H. J. Walberg (2004). New York, N.Y:Teachers College Press

Mezirow, J. (Summer, 1997). Transformative learning: Theory to practice. New directions for adult and continuing education. (74) San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ontario Ministry of Education (2014). Achieving Excellence: A Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario.  Retrieved from: Achieving Excellence: A Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario 

Ontario Ministry of Education (Winter, 2016) Phase One – 21st Century Competencies. Retrieved from Phase One – 21st Century Competencies (Winter, 2016 Edition)

Singleton, J. (March, 2015). Head, heart and hands model for transformative learning: Place as context for changing sustainability values. Journal of Sustainability Education. (9). Retrieved from: The Journal of Sustainability Education

Sharratt, L. & Planche, B. (2016). Leading collaborative learning: Empowering excellence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. Article adapted from a publication for Learning Forward-Ontario (April, 2017)

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