Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Enduring Understandings

Coming up with a really great central idea for a unit of inquiry is, for me, the most important starting point for our collaborative planning.  Inquiring into the central ideas are what leads our students to enduring understandings.  We want to encourage our students to synthesise the knowledge and understanding they come to during their inquiries and to come up with their own transferrable ideas.

In her book Stirring the Head, Heart and Soul, Lynn Erickson writes about generalisations as "statements of conceptual relationship".  These generalisations come from fact-based studies but "transfer through time and across cultures and situations".  Erickson writes about the process we need to go through to identify generalizations - she tells us to start looking for concepts that can be paired to make statements of enduring understanding - what we want the students to understand beyond this specific unit of inquiry.

When writing our generalizations, Erickson tells us to use active, present tense verbs, and to avoid the passive voice, past tense verbs and the verbs to have and to be.  Generalizations should not be definitions and they should use qualifiers such as may or can.  If you don't use such qualifiers then you don't have a generalization, instead you have a principle - which is always true and therefore may leave little room for inquiry.

For example we have a central idea that states:  weather affects life on Earth.  This is a fact and is what Erickson would refer to as a level 1 generalization.  How can we move from this to provoke a deeper level of understanding?  Erickson tells us to ask the question how:  how does weather affect life on Earth?  This brings us to a new concept, that of adaptation - we have to adapt to the weather (perhaps by putting on warmer clothing, perhaps by considering which types of crops can grow in a particular area, or where houses can be built safely, or what materials the houses should be made out of to keep the heat either in or out).  Perhaps we are now at a level 2 generalization:  that we have to adapt to different weather conditions.  Now to move onto a level 3 generalization we need to ask the "so what" question:  So what would the effect be if we did not adapt to the weather?  Well in extreme cases we are talking here about yet another concept - that of survival.  If we don't have the right sorts of clothing, we will not stay very healthy when it is extremely cold, if we do not build houses of the right sorts of materials, these houses may not survive severe weather that leads to floods, if we don't grow suitable crops for the weather conditions, the crops will fail and we won't have enough to eat, for example.  Finally we have arrived at a situation where we have two new concepts - adaptation and survival - that can be written up as a level 3 generalization:  We need to adapt to the changing weather, otherwise we will not survive.  With this central idea there are a huge amount of things that students can inquire into that will lead them to enduring understandings of how the weather affects us.

Photo taken by Woodley Wonderworks


  1. I hadn't ever thought of generalizations in terms of levels but I like that it causes us to dig deeper into understanding.

  2. I like it too. Now every time I read a central idea I'm asking myself if it's a level 1, 2 or 3 generalization and if it's a level 1 I'm going on to ask myself the questions how and so what. I find this is really useful to provoke students into deeper levels of thinking and understanding.