Understanding by Design has among it's directives asking students pre-designed "essential questions" - like globally applicable, thought-provoking questions that cause students to work out concepts for themselves. Additionally, the focus on peer teaching further presses students to think for themselves and piggyback off one another's ideas.
Understanding by Design
A big excerpt from Understanding v Knowledge - written for laypeople:
Understanding vs. Knowledge
“I get it!” That feeling of gaining a new insight is a visceral and vital aspect of learning. It reflects an important insight into any genuine understanding: I have to do some mental work to achieve it. Knowledge is simpler: I learn a new fact and merely note it. I may say "Huh, that's interesting!" but it is not really my insight. Thus, though we sometimes informally equate knowledge with understanding, they are different. An understanding is not just more knowledge: it is possible to know a lot but lack understanding. The opposite is true, too: a student can have a deep understanding of a subject but get some facts wrong on a quiz. Understanding requires knowledge but it is something different from knowledge. And it is all too easy to forget that understanding, not mere knowledge, is the point of education.
Knowledge can best be thought of as all the useable information we possess: things like the name of the author of Charlotte’s Web, what the Pythagorean Theorem says, the meaning of “estivation,” the subjunctive of avoir (and when the subjunctive is called for). Knowledge consists of helpful information: all the learned facts, rules, definitions, formulae, etc. that we can recall and use appropriately. Understandings are different. They are not facts but ideas about facts. They are not data, but what the data suggests; they are not formulae but why the formulae matter and how they can be derived.
Think of an understanding, then as any response to the following question: Here are the facts; what do they mean? Whatever our answer, it is an understanding. In sum, an Understanding is an inference from facts, not another fact. It is a conclusion, using facts.
This distinction between facts and conclusions can be better appreciated by considering how we obtain each. We attain facts by observing, finding, or being told them; we attain understandings by reasoning about facts. I note, for example, the facts of my test results: my 6th-grade math class averaged a 56 on the last test about fractions, and no student gave a right answer to the last 2 difficult questions. No real thought is required here by me – these are just facts that can be perceived. But a quiz score isn’t really understood until someone proposes what those facts mean. Understandings, unlike facts, are achieved not by looking but by theorizing. So, for example, I may conclude from the facts that my students didn’t learn the material – but should have. My colleague concludes that the test was too hard. Still another teacher concludes that students didn’t study; another is sure that they don’t know how to study for a test, based on her similar experience.
All four of these understandings are plausible conclusions based on the facts. Thus, we don’t “find” or “see” understandings, we “create” them (hence, the term “constructivism”) in our minds to make sense of what we have learned. In the words of John Dewey, facts require apprehension but understandings require comprehension.
Dewey has a useful analogy for making this point clearer: what a detective does. By careful observation, Sergeant Smith seeks and apprehends various facts that might be relevant to the case at hand: blood stains, scuff marks, a book open to a page, fingerprints, and statements from various suspects. Ah, but what do those facts mean? How should we comprehend the facts into a coherent and convincing “theory” – particularly, when the facts are incomplete and (in the cases of the statements) contradictory? Further, it is often unclear which facts are relevant or important. In the end, the detective has constructed an understanding, a theory, of what all the details do and don’t mean.
As readers, we are detectives too. We are expected to pro-actively consider the meaning of the facts of the story. For example, a good reader of Catcher in the Rye works to understand Holden Caufield’s behavior: “OK, underneath all his sarcasm, who is Holden, really?” In addition, most readers typically have to revise their “theory” about who he is and what is wrong with him – he is telling the story from a hospital bed, after all, a fact typically forgotten or ignored by naive readers. As we read on we learn more; we re-consider our emerging theory of who Holden is. We use our knowledge (the facts presented in the story, as well as other facts we know from our experience) to infer motives and traits (understandings about the characters) that are not stated in the text. Again, the question is: “OK, those are the facts, the details of the story; what sense do they make? What does the story mean?”
We must engage in this pro-active mental work even when the aim is to grasp a specific understanding that already exists in an academic discipline. We don’t just learn F=ma in physics or the Distance Formula in Algebra I. We learn why – why the data should lead us to presume a constant force of gravity; why the Distance Formula works, namely, because it is just a logical extension of the Pythagorean Theorem. When we have an understanding we “see” not merely what the formula says but what it means: the proof of it, why it matters, how it is powerfully predictive, and what misconceptions we need to overcome to really “get” it. That’s why we say that a good education goes into depth and does not just “cover” things i.e. just present the surface facts.
Excerpt from this page.