Put Understanding First focuses on a current dilemma in education: students are learning facts, but are not able to apply them. In fact, we are creating many students who have become very proficient in doing well in school – cooperating with teachers, completing assignments, and passing tests – but are not learning how to use their knowledge in real world situations. Schools must be very purposeful in ensuring that all curriculum, instruction, and assessment help the student to learn for understanding.
According to the authors, there are three central purposes to education: acquisition of information, creating meaning of the information, and the ability to transfer that understanding to different contexts. The authors point out that in our current system, teachers and students spend the majority of their time on acquisition of facts, with very little time spent creating meaning and applying what has been learned. The content of high school textbooks reinforces this by mostly supporting acquisition. Also, when application takes place, it is generally done at the end of a unit, rather than taking place in tandem with acquisition.
The authors present a number of effective instructional strategies that teachers can utilize to stimulate meaning and transfer. All of the strategies require students to think about a real world application and how the student would address or solve this challenge. In this manner, the students are not learning facts in isolation. Rather, they are learning in context and are forced to apply their knowledge to real situations. This helps them to develop meaning, transfer their learning to a different context and expand their critical thinking and problem solving skills.